Could a pap test help detect breast and ovarian cancers too? Pap tests have long been used to detect cervical cancer early, but preliminary research suggests that cervical cells collected during those tests could also be used to catch other cancers, including deadly ovarian tumors.
Researchers found that by analyzing a particular molecular “signature” in cervical cells, they could accurately identify women with ovarian cancer up to 71% of the time. Using a similar approach, they were also able to detect a majority of women who had breast cancer with a poor prognosis.
The findings suggest that the molecular signatures in cervical cells may be picking up a predisposition to other women-specific cancers, according to senior researcher Dr. Martin Widschwendter, a professor of cancer prevention and screening at the University of Innsbruck in Austria.
Hopes for more intensive screening in the future
The hope, he explains, is to one day have a simple “first-line” screening test for four cancers: cervical, endometrial, breast and ovarian.
Women deemed to be at high risk for any of the diseases could then undergo more intensive screening for them, Widschwendter says. He noted that of all cancers women develop before the age of 65, more than half are breast, ovarian, endometrial or cervical.
Ovarian cancer, in particular, lacks any good test to use for routine screening. The disease is often deadly, largely because it is typically diagnosed after it has spread.
“Our aim is to identify the vast majority of women who are at risk of developing a woman-specific cancer — irrespective of genetic or non-genetic factors,” Widschwendter shares.
However, an ovarian cancer specialist urged caution in interpreting the findings.
They show a “moderate association” between the molecular signature and ovarian cancer, says Dr. Rebecca Stone, director of the Kelly Gynecologic Oncology Service at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
“They are not showing that it’s predictive or diagnostic,” Stone stresses.
To see whether the cervical cell signature actually predicts cancer, she says, a study would need to