According to data released by the National Cancer Institute, about 12,000 women in the U.S. were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2014, and the disease has claimed the lives of about one-third of them. For several decades, the Pap smear had been the only tool to screen for cancer in asymptomatic women. In the Pap smear, specimens are fixed on a microscope slide with a spray and the slide is sent to a clinical lab to look for early signs of cancer.
In April this year, the FDA approved the first human papillomavirus (HPV) test for primary cervical cancer screening or in conjunction with the Pap smear. Developed by Roche, the cobas HPV Test identifies 14 types of HPV that pose the highest risk of causing cervical cancer from a sample of cells taken from the cervix.
Cervical cancer grows slowly and rarely has symptoms. Co-testing for human papilloma virus (HPV) and Pap testing for cervical cancer every 5 years for women aged 30-65 years is recommended in the U.S.
To test whether primary HPV screening could be a good alternative to Pap and it compare it to co-testing, researchers from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute studied data pertaining to over one million women between ages 30 and 64 who were screened for cervical cancer at Kaiser Permanente Northern California since 2003. The major findings of the research published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI) were reported as follows:
- 20 out of the 100,000 women who received a negative Pap test developed cervical cancer within five years of their test
- Only 11 out of the 100,000 women who tested negative for HPV went on to develop cervical cancer
- In the 100,000 women who tested negative for the HPV/Pap co-test, 14 went on to develop cancer
This led the researchers to feel that HPV screenings could be a viable option to the traditional Pap screening. This is because about 91 percent of cases are caused by the human papillomavirus.
But will the HPV test replace the Pap smear? The researchers do not think so. They stress that their study does not suggest that the Pap smear be completely withdrawn as it is a useful tool to track the status of women who are established carriers of HPV.