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New test using cervical screening samples can detect risk of four cancers in women

New test using cervical screening samples can detect risk of four cancers in women

A revolutionary test in development that uses cervical screening samples to detect four types of cancer, including ovarian and breast cancer, could also measure future cancer risk.

Developed by researchers at University College London Institute for Women’s Health, the test may identify up to 30% more women at high risk for breast or ovarian cancer than current genetics-based tests. 

Using DNA from routine cervical smear tests, the researchers look for markers or ‘epigenetic footprints’ on the DNA. They were able to evaluate an individual’s risk for more than one cancer by assessing several different epigenetic footprints in a single cervical screening sample.

The novel test would allow women to be screened and monitored throughout their lifetime based on their personal and changing risk of developing breast, ovarian, cervical or womb cancer. Together, these four cancers account for more than 50% of all cancers in women in Europe. 

The breast and ovarian cancer study results are published in Nature Communications. Further results on the test’s ability to predict cervical and womb cancer are due to be published. 

Cervical screening samples from over 3,000 women in 15 European countries were used to examine the DNA with the cells. By measuring marks on the parts of the cell responsible for gene expression, the DNA methylation, which controls how the DNA code in our cells is interpreted, the researchers could determine how likely a person is to develop one of four gynaecological cancers. DNA methylation can change over a person’s life and marks can alter how our cells behave, influencing predisposition to disease, including cancer. 

Professor Martin Widschwendter from University College London said: ‘The test will look for the footprints on a woman’s DNA as she goes through life, recording the track she is taking and whether she is heading towards cancer.’

In research, the new test identified 77% of women with breast cancer in the highest risk group compared to 48% using standard tests. For ovarian cancer, the current test identified 35% of women in the highest risk group with ovarian cancer, while the new test identified 62% of these cases. 

The researchers suggest the test could ‘revolutionise screening’, enabling a more personalised approach to cancer prevention and detection over a women’s lifetime. People with a high risk of any of these four cancers could be offered regular surveillance, risk-reducing surgery, or therapeutics, potentially preventing thousands of women from getting cancer a year.

Athena Lamnisos, CEO of The Eve Appeal, a UK based charity researching gynaecological cancers which funded the research, said: ‘The ambition of this research programme is to stop cancer before it starts. This could create a step-change in screening for key cancers – not detecting them early but preventing them from developing.’

This comes after research found the death rate from from ovarian cancer in the UK is predicted to be 17% lower this year than in 2017 because of increased use of oral contraceptives.

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