By Pat Hagan
A hand-held device could slash the time it takes to diagnose cervical cancer from several weeks to just a couple of minutes.
The British invention looks like a TV remote control handset, with a penlike probe on the end of it.
It works by firing a very mild electric current into the cervix and instantly monitoring how it passes through cells.
Pre-cancerous cells – those in the very early stages of turning malignant – conduct electricity at a different rate to healthy cells.
Researchers behind the new device, called APX, predict it will ease the trauma of smear-testing for thousands of women.
Results from this can take up to five weeks, leaving women facing an anxious wait to see if they have cancer.
Cervical cancer, which is caused by a sexually-transmitted bug called the human papillomavirus, affects around 2,400 women every year in the UK.
The Government has introduced a national vaccination campaign to immunise teenage girls against infection before they become sexually active. But there is also a national screening programme, under which all women aged 25 or over are invited for a smear test every three to five years.
This involves a technique called liquid-based cytology, where a small sample of cells is ‘brushed’ off the cervix using a spatula, stored in liquid and sent off to a laboratory.
There, the cells are studied by an expert called a cytologist, who looks through a microscope for evidence of abnormal cells, called cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, or CIN.
But it takes four to five weeks for results to come back. If the cytologist suspects a problem, the woman then has to wait several more weeks to have a biopsy, where she is given a local anaesthetic and tiny samples of tissue are cut out.
Although the screening programme is credited with saving lives, it has been beset by blunders.
In 2004, a man whose wife died from the disease after being given the all-clear was awarded £300,000 in damages.