A new test can better predict whether women with human papillomavirus (HPV) are at risk of developing cervical cancer, scientists say.
Ninety-nine per cent of cervical cancers are caused by the STI, spread by skin-to-skin contact during any kind of sexual activity.
But there are more than 200 strains of HPV – all of which have varying degrees of cancer risk, complicating diagnosis and treatment.
Researchers have now come up with a new approach that not only detects the type of HPV infection but also spots precancerous lesions.
Experts say the test may improve the ability to diagnose the riskiest forms of HPV infection and avoid unnecessary diagnostic procedures.
Scientists at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, France, tested the HPV RNA-Seq tool using samples from 55 patients.
Half of the patients had low-grade squamous intraepithelial lesions (SIL), the others had precancerous high-grade SILs.
The tool was able to detect and determine the type of HPV infection after being trained to spot 16 different high risk types.
It detected two more HPV-positive patients than the DNA test and also identified more patients with multiple HPV infections, researchers say.
The test was found to have a sensitivity – ability to detect the presence of an HPV – of 97.3 per cent.
It also had a negative predictive value (NPV) – likelihood of not having HPV – of 93.8 per cent, results showed.
The results of the tool, which combines HPV typing and cell phenotyping, were published in The Journal of Molecular Diagnostics.
Study co-author Professor Marc Eloit said: ‘Effective cervical cancer screening requires high sensitivity and NPV for high-risk HPV infection.’
He added this was because women with a negative HPV test are usually tested again ‘only after several years’.
Professor Eloit suggests the use of HPV RNA-Seq in certain patients can help eliminate unnecessary procedures.
The test may also be applicable for other HPV-associated cancers such as anal cancer and head and neck cancer.
It emerged over the weekend that Boris Johnson’s estranged wife Marina Wheeler is recovering from cervical cancer.
Ms Wheeler, who separated from Mr Johnson last year, has now urged other women to make time for a test.
She told the Sunday Times: ‘If you are basically healthy, active and energetic, it is easy to think you are immortal, but none of us is.’
It comes as NHS England is set to add HPV testing onto the standard smear tests by 2020. They are currently not offered but will be rolled out starting in July this year.
NHS Scotland will roll out HPV testing onto the standard smear tests starting in January 2020, officials have previously announced.
In Wales, the tests have been running since September 2018. Northern Ireland has yet to confirm a date for rolling out the new tests.
It comes as smear test attendance is known to be at an all-time low — just 71 per cent of those invited go for their smear, NHS figures show.
The 10-minute tests, considered embarrassing by many, take a sample of cells from a woman’s cervix – the connection between the vaginal canal and the womb.
These are then examined for signs of any abnormalities which may lead to cervical cancer in the future. If there are signs, preventative treatment may be given.
Changes in cervical cells are often caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which can be transmitted during sex.