Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Monday, December 21, 1998 Published at 23:08 GMT


Detecting the invisible signs of cervical cancer

Not all abnormal cells show up on the average smear

Cells that would look normal in a smear test using current methods conceal hidden abnormalities, according to research published on Monday.

The finding comes as a result of a new technique that could reduce the number of errors in cervical cancer screening.

Recent highly publicised cases of errors in screening have led to thousands of women being recalled for further tests.

This leads to anxiety for the women involved and additional costs for the NHS.

'Invisible' abnormalities

Scientists discovered significant differences between smear samples from healthy women and those with pre-malignant abnormalities and cancer by analysing the chemical composition of cells.

[ image: The most skilled screener will not always see abnormal cells]
The most skilled screener will not always see abnormal cells
Cells from the latter group that appeared completely normal under a microscope were shown to have invisible abnormalities.

Very often only a tiny fraction of the cells in a suspect smear sample are seen to be abnormal.

Because of this, it is easy for even a skilled screener to make a mistake.

By revealing abnormalities in many more cells, the new method could make errors much less likely.

Researchers at Rockefeller University in New York and the biotechnology company Digilab, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, published their findings in the journal, Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences.

The technique, called infrared spectroscopy, produces recognisable patterns that reflect the chemical composition of tissues and cells.

Methods in development

The researchers used the system to examine more than 2,000 individual cervical cells from 10 healthy women, seven with the pre-malignant condition dysplasia and five with cervical cancer.

They found striking differences between cells from the normal group and the others.

Cells from the women with dysplasia and cancer that looked completely normal under a microscope had distinct abnormalities.

The findings come less than a week after the NHS National Cervical Cancer Screening Programme gave its backing to trials of liquid-based cytology, a technique that improves the quality of cell samples sent to the laboratory for screening.

A week before that, the Cancer Research Campaign put forward its own proposal for an improved screening technique.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

Health Contents

Background Briefings
Medical notes

Relevant Stories

17 Dec 98 | Health
Screening cuts deaths

07 Dec 98 | Health
Scientists hail 'infallible' smear test

05 Dec 98 | Health
Smear test failures risking lives

05 Dec 98 | Health
Smear test failures risking lives

Internet Links

NHS National Cervical Cancer Screening Programme

The Royal College of Pathologists

Proceedings of the (US) National Academy of Sciences

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Disability in depth

Spotlight: Bristol inquiry

Antibiotics: A fading wonder

Mental health: An overview

Alternative medicine: A growth industry

The meningitis files

Long-term care: A special report

Aids up close

From cradle to grave

NHS reforms: A guide

NHS Performance 1999

From Special Report
NHS in crisis: Special report

British Medical Association conference '99

Royal College of Nursing conference '99