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Cervical cancer research

Find out about the latest UK research and clinical trials looking at cervical cancer.

Research into the symptoms of cervical cancer

A UK study wanted to find out more about the symptoms and experiences that young women had before being diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The study team found that many of the women (aged 18 to 29) didn't know the symptoms of cervical cancer and delayed going to see the doctor about them.

The team suggested that information about symptoms should be improved and this could help cervical cancer to be diagnosed earlier.

Research into cervical screening tests

We know there is a link between the development of abnormal cells in the cervix and infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV). Researchers have developed tests to find HPV in cervical screening samples. This shows which women should be referred for an examination of the cervix called colposcopy.

If a woman's cervical screening test shows borderline or low grade abnormal cell changes (dyskaryosis), laboratories test the sample of cells for HPV. If HPV is present, the woman is referred for a colposcopy test.

Screening for HPV first

In some areas of England, the screening programme is looking at testing for HPV first. So if HPV is found, the woman's sample is then checked for abnormal cells. 

Researchers think this might be better because HPV testing picks up more abnormal cells in the cervix. Also, if your sample has no HPV it is unlikely that cervical cancer will develop in the next few years. So these women might not need to go for screening as often. But more studies are needed to know this for sure.

Researchers are continuing to look into other ways of testing for HPV for cervical screening. One trial looked at whether women could collect their own samples for HPV testing. The researchers found no real difference in test results between the HPV sample taken by the women themselves, and those done by a doctor or nurse.

A recent review of studies has shown that a urine test to pick up HPV might be useful for screening but more studies are needed before it can be used.

Research into preventing cervical cancer

HPV vaccines

Vaccines, such as Cervarix and Gardasil, have been developed to prevent HPV infection. There are many different HPV strains. HPV types 16 and 18 are known to increase the risk of cervical cancer.

Several research trials have tested vaccines as a way of preventing infection with HPV. The trials have shown that the vaccines help to prevent abnormal changes in the cervix that may develop into cancer. In the UK, HPV vaccination is offered in school to all girls aged 12 to 13.

Research suggests that this vaccination programme will greatly lower the number of cases of cervical cancer. It will also reduce the need for colposcopy. 

Research into scans for cervical cancer

Researchers are looking at a type of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan called diffusion weighted MRI for cervical cancer. The aim of this study is to find out if the diffusion weighted MRI can show whether cervical cancer is likely to have a good or a bad outcome.

Research into treatment for cervical cancer

Surgery

Surgery is the usual treatment for early stage cervical cancer.

Researchers are looking at different ways of doing surgery for early cervical cancer. They are comparing removal of the womb and cervix (a simple hysterectomy) with the usual treatment (a radical hysterectomy).

A radical hysterectomy involves removing:

  • the womb (including the cervix)
  • all the tissues holding the womb in place
  • the top of the vagina
  • all the lymph nodes around the womb

The trial wants to find out if a simple hysterectomy is as good as a radical hysterectomy in treating cervical cancer. It also wants to check if the simple hysterectomy gives fewer side effects and a better quality of life after the surgery.

Chemotherapy

Researchers are:

  • comparing chemotherapy before surgery with chemotherapy and radiotherapy (chemoradiotherapy) in early cervical cancer 
  • looking into giving chemotherapy on its own before chemoradiotherapy starts for locally advanced cervical cancer
  • testing chemotherapy for advanced cervical cancer

Radiotherapy

Researchers are looking into ways of improving internal radiotherapy (brachytherapy) for cervical cancer.

They are also looking at increasing the radiation dose when giving external radiotherapy by using Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT). The aim is to see if doctors can increase the radiation dose to the cancer, without causing more side effects than standard radiotherapy treatment.

Research is also looking into using different chemotherapy drugs alongside radiotherapy for cervical cancer. Researchers think they might be able to improve results by investigating other combinations of drugs.

Radiotherapy side effects

Researchers for the HOT II trial looked at whether using a high pressure oxygen treatment called hyberbaric oxygen (HBO) therapy could help to relieve the long term side effects of radiotherapy to the area between the hip bones (the pelvis). The results of the trial disagreed with other reports that say HBO is helpful. So the trial team felt larger trials are needed to know for sure. 

Another study is looking at using a palm oil supplement and a drug called pentoxifylline to relieve symptoms caused by pelvic radiotherapy. The trial team want to find out if this combination of treatment helps, and to learn more about the side effects.

Researchers are also using a device called an electronic nose to see if they can predict long term changes in bowel function after pelvic radiotherapy. 

Targeted cancer drugs

Targeted cancer drugs change the way that cells work. They can boost the body’s immune system to fight off or kill cancer cells. Or they can block signals that tell cells to grow.

Research is looking into different types of targeted drugs for cervical cancer. These drugs are being tested in trials. They are being looked at alone or in combination with radiotherapy or chemotherapy to treat cervical cancer.

The drugs being tested include:

  • bevacizumab
  • nivolumab
  • cediranib

A trial is looking at whether a vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) can work as a treatment against some cancers, including cervical cancer. 

Last reviewed: 
09 Oct 2017
  • Self-sample HPV tests as an intervention for nonattendees of cervical cancer screening in Finland: a randomized trial
    A Virtanen and others
    Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention 20.9 (2011): 1960-1969

  • Accuracy of urinary human papillomavirus testing for presence of cervical HPV: systematic review and meta-analysis
    N Pathak and others
    British Medical Journal (2014): g5264

  • Improved survival with bevacizumab in advanced cervical cancer
    K Tewari and others
    New England Journal of Medicine 370.8 (2014): 734-743

  • NHS screening programme England - pilot sites for initial HPV testing
    NHS England, December 2015

  • Efficacy of human papillomavirus (HPV)-16/18 AS04-adjuvanted vaccine against cervical infection and precancer caused by oncogenic HPV types (PATRICIA): final analysis of a double-blind, randomised study in young women
    J Paavonen and others
    The Lancet 374.9686 (2009): 301-314

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