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HPV Test Helps Detect Cervical Cancer

Study Shows Lesions That Lead to Cancer Spotted Earlier Than With Pap Test Alone
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Oct. 3, 2007 -- The Pap test has been used for more than six decades to detect cervical cancer and precancerous cells, but a different screening method may help in better identifying precancers early in women in their 30s and beyond, findings from a large European study suggest.

Researchers reported that human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA testing combined with the Pap test detected the high-risk lesions that lead to cervical cancer earlier than Pap testing alone.

HPV testing could also lead to less frequent screening for women who are 30 and over, the researchers say.

HPV DNA testing is known to be more sensitive than the traditional Pap test, meaning that it is able to detect more cervical abnormalities early. But it has not been clear until now if these abnormalities were clinically relevant, says the study's principal investigator.

"We showed that these lesions were indeed clinically meaningful, and that HPV DNA testing leads to their earlier detection," Chris Meijer, MD, of Amsterdam's VU University Medical Center, tells WebMD.

He adds that HPV testing may eventually replace Pap testing as the first-line screening method for cervical cancer if longer follow-up confirms early findings.

HPV and Cervical Cancer

It is now clear that virtually all cervical cancers -- more than 99%, according to the American Cancer Society -- are related to HPV infection, which is a sexually transmitted virus. Just two strains of the virus, HPV 16 and HPV 18, account for 70% of cervical cancers. Most genital HPV infections don't cause cancer though.

Current screening guidelines in the U.S. call for annual Pap screening within three years of vaginal intercourse or no later than age 21. Beginning at age 30, low-risk women who have had three normal consecutive Pap smears can safely be screened less often.

In the U.S., HPV testing is approved in cases where Pap tests results are unclear or in conjunction with Pap screening after age 30. HPV testing is not a replacement for Pap testing.

In an effort to clarify the value of HPV testing in cervical cancer screening, researchers in the Netherlands have enrolled roughly 45,000 women in an ongoing comparison trial of HPV plus Pap testing vs. Pap testing alone.

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