Since the introduction of organised screening in Sweden in the 1960s, the number of women being diagnosed with and succumbing to cervical cancer has fallen dramatically. Screening, where a sample of cells is collected from the cervix and examined under an optical microscope, detects early cell changes so that they can be treated before they cause cancer.

However, despite intensive screening 250 women still die from cervical cancer each year in Sweden, and a further 500 develop the disease.

The sensitivity of the current test is low, which means that cell samples must be taken at least every three years. A large number of tests must also be repeated because of unreliable results – something which causes anxiety among patients and additional costs for the health service.

Researchers at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg have now developed a complementary test capable of minimising the number of missed cancer cases.

“Around 70 per cent of all cervical cancer cases are caused by two specific virus types, known as HPV16 and HPV18. We have developed a method that identifies proteins of these oncogenic viruses in cells, enabling a more objective interpretation of the test results,” explains Maria Lidqvist, a doctoral student, who presents the method in her thesis.

“This method can hopefully produce a more reliable diagnosis in uncertain cases and reduce the number of missed cancer cases, as well as the number of women who have to be re-called because of cell samples that are difficult to interpret.”

The research behind this method has been financed by the Swedish Research Council and conducted at Sahlgrenska Academy in collaboration with Fujirebio Diagnostics AB in Gothenburg.

The thesis Monoclonal antibodies against human papillomavirus E7 oncoprotein for diagnosis of cervical neoplasia and cancer is being publicly defended on 26 October.

Cervical cancer is caused by a limited number of sexually transmittable human papillomavirus types (HPV). Most men and women are infected with HPV at some point during their lives, but only a small proportion of infections cause cell changes. In most cases cell changes heal themselves or can easily be treated. However, a small proportion of infections cause severe cell changes that can lead to cancer if they are not detected and treated.

Cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer among women, with around 500,000 new cases and 270,000 deaths worldwide every year. Countries that offer screening have a considerably reduced incidence of cancer and mortality rate, but despite organised screening thousands of women around the world still die from cervical cancer each year.

Maria Lidqvist, doctoral student at the Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
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Supervisors Jan Holmgren, +46 (0)31-7866205, Christian Fermér, Fujirebio Diagnostics AB, +46 (0)31-857037