New at PopSci: Some Competition For The Pap Smear

new cervical cancer test
The classic test now has some competition.U.S. National Institutes of Health

Earlier this year, the FDA approved a new test for cervical cancer to be used interchangeably with the time-tested Pap smear. Instead of looking for pre-cancerous cells like the Pap, it hunts for the DNA of the virus that causes 90 percent of cervical cancers: human papillomavirus, or HPV.

What does this change about cervical cancer testing? And is it really an effective test for the twenty-something women that carry most of the HPV burden in the U.S.?

By its name alone, the Pap smear sounds like an uncomfortable procedure. Say it aloud: Pap smear. And it’s not too pretty to experience either. You put on a paper dress, slip your feet into stirrups, and spread your legs so a gynecologist can insert a metal duck-bill-shaped speculum (which, if you’re lucky, she’s has taken care to warm up beforehand) into your vagina. Then she swabs your cervix with a long Q-tip to collect a few cells, which she’ll examine under the microscope for abnormal growth that could develop into cancer. It’s a procedure inconvenient and uncomfortable enough that many women chronically avoid having it done, despite the recommendation to get the cervical cancer test every three years. But it’s incredibly important for women’s health: since the Pap smear’s introduction in the 1950s, cervical cancer diagnoses and deaths have gone down 60 percent, saving thousands upon thousands of lives. But the classic test now has some competition. In late April, the FDA approved a new test to be used interchangeably with (or replace) the Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer. Where the Pap looks for early signs of cancer in cervical cells, the new test, called the “cobas HPV test,” looks for a common cause of cervical cancer: human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common sexually transmitted disease, carried by 40 percent of U.S. women ages 14 to 59 at any given time, that causes around 90 percent of all cervical cancers.