January 28, 2019

Triumph out of tragedy: A home screening test for cervical cancer

By Susan Buckles

January is Cervical Health Awareness Month, a time to reflect on personalized approaches to preventing or treating cervical cancer.

Harrowing stories of rampant sexual violence and high instances of cervical cancer in the Democratic Republic of Congo spurred Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D. to action. The emotional stories of survival and death triggered her desire to discover a tool that could transform cancer screening for women from Africa to America and beyond.

Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D.

“I asked, ‘what can I do? I was surprised to hear that the greatest need was for research. That’s right in my wheelhouse,” says Dr. Walther-Antonio, a researcher within the Mayo Clinic Center for Individualized Medicine who has a joint appointment in the Mayo Clinic Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “They (African providers) wanted a test that could detect cancer early — something African women could do themselves at home, so they wouldn’t have to travel a long, risky journey to a hospital for cancer screening.”

Dr. Walther-Antonio galvanized her research team to develop a low cost, easy-to-use test that could screen for human papillomavirus (HPV). A positive test for certain strains of HPV could be an early signal of cervical cancer. Their goal is to keep the cost to under $2 per test, affordable enough to be used in a mobile campaign that would promote HPV screening in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Like a home pregnancy test

Dr. Walther-Antonio’s team envisions the tool similar in concept to a home pregnancy test, although the chemical composition would be different. The user would use a urine sample in a simple mix-rinse-read procedure. If the marker turns blue, the person is a carrier of a high-risk HPV strain. If the test is negative, the marker will be clear.

“We want the user to easily understand whether the results are negative or positive without needing a lab test or a physician to interpret. It could cut down on the number of trips to the hospital. People would not have to go in to be screened and would have to be seen only if their test is positive,” adds Dr. Walther-Antonio. “The test is based on genetics, but the genetics of HPV rather than that of the patient. It has the same genetic targets as a PCR-based test, but without the need for lab facilities or expert handling.”

Interest in the United States

While still in the testing and development phase, Dr. Walther-Antonio’s screening tool has generated interest in the United States and beyond.

“This could be extremely useful for low-income women who don’t have easy access to medical care. It could improve cervical cancer screening rates and increase the frequency of screening,” says Dr. Walther-Antonio.

And, the research is exploring whether a similar type of test could be used to detect other disease targets including:

  • High-risk HPV strains in saliva for oropharyngeal cancer screening
  • Antibiotic resistant E. Coli
  • Flu virus

The HPV screening tool is still in early testing, where they are seeking improvements such as increasing shelf life. It could take several years before the tool moves on to the next stage of testing and eventually clinical trials.

Early cancer screening tools have helped improve cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment, which has decreased the number of cervical cancer deaths. More than 13,000 women in America will be diagnosed with cervical cancer this year, and it’s estimated that 4,250 will die of the disease.

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Tags: #Cervical cancer, #Cervical cancer screening, #Democratic Republic of Congo, #HPV, #HPV screening, Cancer, center for individualized medicine, Dr. Marina Walther-Antonio, Precision Medicine, Research

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