New cervical cancer tests could save 150 lives a year

Trials to be carried out on primary HPV testing

Thousands of lives could be saved thanks to a new cervical cancer test that is said to be significantly more effective than traditional smears.

Early trials of ‘primary HPV testing’ suggest it could save the lives of 150 women every year.

And, unlike the current smear test, women would be able to carry out the procedure in their own homes, saving themselves the embarrassment of having it done at a surgery or hospital.

It currently costs around £30, but researchers believe the price would be reduced considerably if it was rolled out across the NHS. They calculate potential savings of £50m a year because women would need to have the test less frequently than smears, which are carried out every three to five years.

The do-it-yourself test detects the human papilloma virus (HPV) which causes tumours.

Women would provide a sample, similar to a smear, which is then sent to a lab.

If they are found to have the virus, they would be invited back for more frequent screening every year or 18 months. Those who didn’t have the virus would not have to have another test for six years.

Crucially, the test can also pick up pre-cancerous tumours which are often not detected by smears. Women would then be able to have surgery to remove these growths before they can develop into cancer.

Researchers from Queen Mary, University of London looked at the records of 8,750 women aged 25-64 diagnosed with cervical cancer between 2007 and 2012.

Around 40% had undergone a smear test within the previous six years which had come back clear.

The researchers then calculated how many cancers could have been avoided had women been given the new test.

They believe it would prevent a third of cervical cancers - 1,000 a year - and at least 150 deaths.

Professor Peter Sasieni, who carried out the study, said: ‘We are talking about the lives of young women here. Women in their 30s, 40s, 50s and, in rare cases, their 20s. Many are mothers with young children, somebody’s wife or daughter. We cannot delay. Over a decade that is 1,500 deaths.”

He added: “Cervical cancer screening is already hugely effective, but our study shows how much more effective it could be by swapping to primary HPV testing. Not only would introducing primary HPV testing prevent more cases of cancer, it would also mean women who tested negative wouldn’t need to be checked as often.”

A pilot of the new test was launched last month and over the next year 100,000 will be invited to have the procedure at centres in Liverpool, north west London, Sheffield, Bristol and Norwich. The results will be published next year. If it proves a success, the test will be available on the NHS, although the approval process may take three or four years.