Study Finds Pap Smear May Yield Key to Detecting Ovarian Cancer

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A new study published in the Jan. 9 issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine has found that a woman's routine Pap smear may soon be able to screen for uterine and ovarian cancers as well. Doctors working at Johns Hopkins found that if the samples collected from a small group of women during their routine Pap smears was put through a genome sequencing process called PapGene that almost all uterine cancers and a significant percentage of ovarian cancers that were present were reliably detected.

How accurate was the test?

According to the report in Science Translational Medicine, PapGene was able to detect 100 percent of the endometrial cancers in the sample group of women, or 24 out of 24. Endometrial cancer is a cancer found in the lining of the uterus.

PapGene's ability to detect ovarian cancers in the sample group of women was less reliable, at 41 percent accuracy. PapGene detected ovarian cancer in 9 out of the 22 women who were known to have the disease among the sample group.

How does PapGene work?

CNN reported on Wednesday that PapGene relies upon a fluid sample taken during a woman's regular Pap smear. These fluid samples are taken more commonly now during routine examinations than they were a few years ago, because fluid samples allow doctors to test for human papillomavirus (HPV), as well as cervical cancer itself and other issues.

The Associated Press explained that PapGene works by detecting cells in that fluid sample that have been sloughed off by the cancer-affected areas. During normal microscopic examination, they would not usually be detected.

Is this test ready to be used as part of a woman's routine cervical exam?

No. The doctors responsible for this preliminary study are currently collecting many more Pap fluid samples in order to begin the screening process and further test PapGene's accuracy. While Dr. Shannon Westin of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center told the Associated Press on Wednesday that "if this screening test could identify ovarian cancer at an early stage," it would have a "profound impact" on both deaths from that type of cancer and general outcomes, but it needs to show improved accuracy in order to move forward into general use.

Now that doctors have found this test, what's next?

The test needs to be put through a larger study, involving far more women. Johns Hopkins oncologist Dr. Luis Diaz, whose team conducted the initial PapGene study, told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the team will also be looking at other possible factors that may influence the accuracy of the test, including whether conducting the test at different points in a woman's menstrual cycle has an impact, or whether conducting a deeper Pap smear picks up more of the cancer cells and garners better results.

Vanessa Evans is a musician and freelance writer based in Michigan with a lifelong interest in health and nutrition issues.

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