A new PCR test that identifies women with womb cancer from a sample taken from the cervix or vagina has been developed by researchers from UCL and the University of Innsbruck.
The test is more accurate than current methods and may work equally well on all women, according to the research published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. It is hoped that the research will speed up the diagnosis of womb cancer and reduce the need for more invasive, and often painful, diagnostic procedures such as hysteroscopy.
Womb cancer is the fourth most common cancer in women in the UK and the most common of the five gynaecological cancers, with over 9,700 people diagnosed every year in the UK.
However, it can be difficult to detect, as the main symptom for the disease is usually abnormal bleeding and this can be mistaken for several other benign (non-cancerous) conditions, such as polyps, fibroids and endometriosis.
The new test, named the WID TM-qEC, was developed by UCL’s Professor Martin Widschwendter and his team, and examines three regions of DNA that show different levels of methylation, a type of modification ‘on top’ of the DNA, in those with or without cancer. DNA methylation levels are measured by PCR, which is relatively low-cost and used routinely in clinical diagnostic labs.
To assess the reliability of the test, researchers used 1,288 cervical screening samples from women both with and without womb cancer, collected by a large team of investigators across the UK and Europe.
The test successfully identified all eight cases of womb cancer within a cohort of 63 women presenting with post-menopausal bleeding.
Additionally, only a few women without cancer were given a false positive result (less than 11% of the women without womb cancer), making the test more specific than transvaginal ultrasound.
The WID TM-qEC test delivered reliable results both when the sample was taken by a medical professional and self-collected with a vaginal swab. Self-sampling could speed up the detection process even further by reducing the need to book and attend an appointment.
Professor Widschwendter said: “It was critical to us that this research addressed all of the issues associated with current detection methods for womb cancer. Most importantly, using our test, far fewer women with abnormal bleeding will have to undergo invasive diagnostic procedures. Our test does not depend on the operator and results can be returned quickly, reducing anxiety.
“Post-menopausal women with abnormal bleeding have a 1 in 10 chance of having womb cancer; for pre-menopausal women the chance is much lower (as low as 1 in 200). For these women the simplicity and accuracy of the WID™-qEC test offers real advantages for detecting womb cancer early.
“We want to thank all of the teams in the collaboration who helped to deliver this improved early detection method for womb cancer.”