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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 April, 2005, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
On-the-spot cervical cancer test
Image of cervical smear slide
Smear test results can take weeks to return
A probe that gives on-the-spot results could replace smear tests for spotting cervical cancers, scientists believe.

The device, designed by Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust researchers, is the size of a pen and uses electrical currents to scan cells.

It should mean women can get results immediately rather than waiting weeks as some do now with conventional smear tests, say the inventors.

They have tested it on about 400 UK women.

How it works

These studies have shown that the probe can spot early changes in the cells of the cervix that suggest a cancer may be developing.

These are the same cells that are examined by smear tests. Currently, doctors have to send of the smear slide to a laboratory to be read, which can take up to five weeks.

With the probe, the doctor would be able to examine the woman and check within minutes whether any of the cells have changes that might mean they are becoming cancerous.

Replacing smear tests could ensure that waiting times for test results are kept to a minimum
Consultant gynaecologist John Tidy

The probe sends the information it finds down a wire to a computer to analyse, which will tell the doctor the result.

If the results show up abnormalities, the doctor can send the woman for further tests and treatment if necessary.

Consultant gynaecologist John Tidy, who has been leading the study, said: "This will cut the time between diagnosis and treatment and avoid causing women to worry, often unnecessarily, while they wait for results.

"The introduction of a probe instead of smear testing may prove beneficial in the future as it will reduce the costs of the national screening programme.

"We are also facing a national shortage of histopathologists - the clinical scientists who process tests in the laboratories - so replacing smear tests could ensure that waiting times for test results are kept to a minimum."

Around 2,400 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK, and the national screening programme has led to a large drop in the numbers dying from the disease.

Dr Tidy said the probe could be particularly useful for countries that do not already have screening programmes.

His team is working with a hospital in India to test the device in larger numbers of women.

In the UK study, the women who tested the device also had conventional smear tests.

Cancer Research UK said the research was interesting but that further studies would be needed to check whether the probe could detect suspect cancer cells in the clinic.

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