Of the many types of cancer that plague our planet, cervical cancer is one of the few that is nearly 100 percent preventable. The tools are in place to eliminate this disease that kills more than 300,000 women - our sisters, mothers, co-workers and friends - every year.

Despite advances in science, barriers still exist that prevent some women from ever being screened. Among them: limited access to testing, fear and anxiety over the exam and cultural concerns.

New Roche innovation that empowers women to collect their own cervical cells for testing is poised to break down barriers to screening.

“A majority of cervical cancers are occurring in women who are not going for screening,” said Mahboobeh Safaeian, an epidemiologist who has studied self-sampling for nearly 20 years and now leads clinical sciences for HPV - or human papillomavirus - at Roche Diagnostics. “This empowers women by putting control into their hands. It can help revolutionise access to care.”

Launching first in countries accepting the CE mark, this innovation allows women to collect their own vaginal sample for HPV screening, using a clinically validated test and swab combination.The sample is then sent to a lab for testing.

HPV can be transmitted through sexual touch, with or without actual intercourse, and with or without condom use. Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, as persistent infection with certain types of the virus can lead to cervical pre-cancer or cancer. HPV screening can help determine which infections are more likely to lead to cancer, to catch disease early.

Women can now privately collect cells from their vagina with a swab at a doctor’s office, clinic or another location. A healthcare worker can then process the sample and send it for HPV testing. This can reduce anxiety over testing and make screening more accessible. Studies show that this method is not only widely accepted by women, but is oftentimes preferred.1 The test performance is comparable to a clinician-collected cervical sample, which is a more invasive method that some women may be uncomfortable with.2

“Half of the women who die from cervical cancer didn’t get screened,” said Ed Baker, an obstetrics and gynaecology physician who heads medical affairs for infection and immunity at Roche Diagnostics. “We can really change that. It's such a natural way to solve a big problem by getting it to the underserved population.”

“Cervical cancer can be a disease of disparities,” said Carolyn Kay, obstetrics and gynaecology physician and a medical affairs leader at Roche Diagnostics. “There are transportation issues or physical proximity to healthcare. But we also see women with a history of trauma or cultural barriers to screening, which may prevent them from being screened.”

Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women worldwide. It starts in the cervix, located at the lower part of the uterus. Persistent infection of certain high-risk types of the HPV virus are known to be the primary cause of cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is one of the most successfully treatable forms of cancer, as long as it is detected early and managed effectively.3

While the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in much of the world delaying cervical cancer and other routine health screenings, it has also raised awareness as to the value of home tests, like ones for COVID.

For women living in remote areas, the impact can be life changing.

”For women, who are the cornerstone of their communities and cannot take a day to travel to a clinic, travelling clinics or travelling nurses can go from village to village. Women can perform their own collection there and healthcare professionals take the specimens with them to a laboratory,” said Sebastiaan van den Broek, a member of the Roche business team that is bringing self-sampling to women.

It isn’t only women with limited access to healthcare who can benefit from self-sampling.

“I see this being a great option for women who have healthcare coverage but may be hesitant to get screened on a regular basis,” said Sun Austin, a Roche scientist who helped lead the work around HPV self-sampling.

While regular screening is recommended, screening women for HPV as little as two times during their lifetime can help eliminate cervical cancer.

As a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University, Mahboobeh and her team conducted a study of about 3,000 women who self collected cervical samples in Uganda. About 84 percent of the study participants adhered to the method, indicating that many women are comfortable self collecting.

“Even if you can do two screens at two really important times of their life, you're going to prevent a lot of precancers from becoming cancerous,” she said. “We can really make a difference.”

Said Sebastiaan, “At Roche we go to work every day and contribute to shaping healthcare solutions because no woman should die from cervical cancer "

References 

  1. Nelson, E. J., Maynard, B. R., Loux, T., Fatla, J., Gordon, R., & Arnold, L. D. (2017). The acceptability of self-sampled screening for HPV DNA: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 93, 56. 

  2. Wright TC, Jr, Denny L, Kuhn L, et al. HPV DNA testing of self-collected vaginal samples compared with cytologic screening to detect cervical cancer. JAMA 2000;283:81–6.

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