Virus test can help detection of cancer

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The Independent Online
A SIMPLE test which is carried out at the same time as a cervical smear can help doctors to identify women at greatest risk of cancer and who need immediate investigation and treatment, according to a study.

The combination of tests could reduce by almost half the number of women referred for a colposcopy - a physical examination of the cervix. Women with abnormal smears often have to wait months before they undergo a colposcopy, which can confirm or discount the presence of pre-cancerous disease.

Researchers at the Royal Free Hospital, north London, have found that women who have a high or medium quantity of a particular virus are more likely to have severe pre-cancerous cervical disease. Those with a low amount are at low risk and may not need further investigation.

According to the report in the British Journal of Cancer, the researchers combined a regular smear test with a test for the human papilloma virus - HPV type 16 - in 200 women. Once the smear was taken and the cells removed and transferred to a slide, the spatula is shaken in a container of saline solution which is then tested for the virus.

The researchers found that this technique resulted in identification of 'significantly' more women with a final diagnosis of moderate or severe pre-cancerous disease, than either method alone.

Although a small number of women would still require a colposcopy even if the diagnosis shows no disease, the majority could be reassured.

Cancer of the cervix is one of the commonest cancers affecting women, with about 4,500 cases diagnosed each year, and HPV is implicated in the developement of the disease.