Researchers at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, USA, have found a simple method to detect cervical cancer which involves just drawing blood and heating it to a higher temperature.
The test also helps to determine the stage of the cancer, they have said.
According to the researchers, ‘Plasma Thermogram’ will make cervical cancer diagnostics easier and much cheaper in developing countries like India where a majority of cervical cancer patients are rural women.
It is estimated that more than 85 per cent of cervical cancers are detected only using the Pap Smear test in India.
The Louisville researchers say that the new method could alleviate the burden of cervical cancer.
Mixed Response from Local Doctors
However, the research has evoked mixed responses from the local doctors. They say it may not reduce the disease burden though it could be less painful and intrusive when compared to Pap Smear and other tests.
The new test requires a standard blood draw giving 100 to 200 microlitres of blood plasma unlike the Pap Smear which requires a vaginal swab for the smear test and is hence, less cumbersome, said Dr Nichola Christine Garbett, lead researcher of the Department of Medicine at the University of Louisville.
Last year, researchers at Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, developed Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid (VIA) test. It needs just a 5 per cent solution of acetic acid which is smeared on the cervix after which precancerous cells turn white and can be viewed with the naked eye using a light and was claimed to be the cheapest method.
Dr Garbett said that it is not known if the Plasma Thermogram would be cheaper than the vinegar test.
“The test has very little consumable cost. We are now using only a blood draw and a calorimeter. If we develop a point-of-care miniaturised calorimeter needing only a finger-prick, it would be ideal for use in a developing country scenario such as India because it will be available at a minimal cost,” Dr Garbett said.
Dr K S Gopinath, surgical oncologist at HCG Hospital said Plasma Thermogram may not be very useful tool given manpower, cost of this treatment and the huge burden of cervical cancer.
“This is an indicator of the tumour burden and may help in modifying cancer-directed treatment. But cervical cancer burden is very high and it may not be a very useful mass screening tool.”
Further, the experimental Plasma Thermogram is now priced at US $250, but with multiple blood samples tested simultaneously, it could drop to $15.
In India, a Pap Smear test costs between `450 and 1,000.
The vinegar test can be done at home without using any additional instruments, but with the help of Auxiliary Nurse Midwives.
The Plasma Thermogram is intended to be a complementary test to the Pap Smear, added Dr Garbett.
“Since the blood testing is done in a very easy format, monitoring can be done more frequently so that the disease can be detected earlier and doctors can also ensure that the treatment effectiveness is also closely and more easily monitored,” she explained.
The research published in Plos One, a journal of the Public Library of Sciences, says that the test can find the status of disease in patients and their response to treatment.
“Doctors can then adjust treatment to make it more effective and this further reduces the cost” Dr Garbett added.
The test is also likely to be used to monitor other cancers and diseases and for personalised medicine approach based on a person’s unique Thermogram profile.
‘Mass Trials Are Needed’
Meanwhile, Dr Shakuntala Baliga, consultant gynaeco-oncologist at Mazumdar-Shaw Centre for Cancer Research, said that the test is interesting.
“Blood is drawn from a painless fingerprick and the person does not have to be exposed to a speculum exam and this test could actually be faster,” she felt.
“Until it is tried at least on 5,000 women and the chances of false negatives and positives are reduced, we cannot say that it can be used,” she said. The Plasma Thermogram has been tried on 67 women so far.
Dr Rani A Bhat, consultant gynaecological oncologist, HCG Oncology, said risks of cervical cancer and death from such lesions have remained largely uncontrolled because access to screening and preventive treatment is limited.
“Any screening test should be cost-effective, non-invasive and readily available. We need a randomised controlled trial comparing it with Pap Smear to find which is more accurate and cost-effective. Screening is considered optimal when the smallest amount of resources is used to achieve the greatest benefit,” she said.