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New cervical cancer test a stepping stone to more accurate screening

BC Cancer, BCCDC and UK scientists collaborated to evaluate a new DNA test to help assess whether human papillomavirus (HPV) infection will lead to cervical cancer.
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Although this test is in early stages, it has made headlines around the world for its innovation.   

HPV is transmitted through sexual contact but is now a vaccine-preventable illness. Women who are not vaccinated need to be tested through either a Pap test or an HPV test. 

Chronic HPV infection can cause cervical damage that leads to cervical cancer. However, most of the time the HPV infection clears on its own, within about two years, without a person ever knowing they were infected. It’s only chronic infections with a cancer-causing type of HPV that may lead to cervical cancer, if left undetected and untreated.

B.C. has a multipronged cervical cancer prevention strategy. This includes a publicly-funded HPV vaccination program for school-aged children and other individuals who meet certain criteria up to age 26. The HPV vaccine is the best protection against being infected with HPV.

For those women who have already been infected with HPV, BC Cancer’s existing Cervical Cancer Screening Program has done an excellent job at reducing cervical cancer in women. 

The HPV FOCAL trial led by the BC Cancer and BCCDC researchers had already shown that replacing the current Pap test with primary HPV screening identifies women at risk of cervical cancer earlier. Women who are HPV-negative need less frequent screening. 

Because HPV infections are so common and infections will clear on their own, there is a need to develop a test to identify those most at risk of developing cervical cancer.

The new test looks at both cervical cells’ host and viral DNA methylation. When HPV causes cancer, it changes the cell’s DNA and disrupts the cell’s ability to repair damage caused by the infection. This causes uncontrolled replication of cells that result in cancer. This test looks for the epigenetic methylation changes (damage to the DNA) in viral and human DNA caused by the HPV infection, to objectively identify women at higher risk for cancer.

“This exciting collaboration between BC Cancer, BCCDC and UK scientists reflect our commitment to develop better tools to help eliminate cervical cancer in BC women and worldwide. This new test, while promising, needs to undergo large scale and rigorous evaluation to ensure that it will be effective in practice.” says Dr. Van Niekerk, medical director for BC Cancer’s Cervical Cancer Screening Program and a co-author of this study. 

For more information about cervical cancer and screening, see 

BC Cancer; screening; Cancer prevention; cervical cancer; BC Centre for Disease Control; cancer; Research
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