Pap Smears “of mainly historical interest"

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | April 11, 2009 9:44 am

This story about a new DNA test outperforming the annual Pap smear is big.  From the New York Times:

Not only could the new test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, save lives; scientists say that women over 30 could drop annual Pap smears and instead have the DNA test just once every 3, 5 or even 10 years, depending on which expert is asked.

The news is based on a study published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine showing a single screening with the DNA test beats all other methods at preventing advanced cancer and death.

The study is “another nail in the coffin” for Pap smears, which will “soon be of mainly historical interest,” said Dr. Paul D. Blumenthal, a professor of gynecology at Stanford medical school who has tested screening techniques in Africa and Asia and was not involved in the study.

But whether the new test is adopted will depend on many factors, including hesitation by gynecologists to abandon Pap smears, which have been remarkably effective. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

Read on

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Media and Science

Comments (6)

  1. Linda

    It seems an encouraging and exciting advance forward by the medical community for all women. Hooray!

  2. I was all ready to chear until I read the full article. The DNA test still requires a cervical scraping. Drats! Those stirrups aren’t disappearing anytime soon.

  3. Cervical cancer was a leading cause of death for American women in the 1950s; it now kills fewer than 4,000 a year.

    That sentence says nothing. It is not a valid comparison of anything. A pap smear is a cervical mucus sample smeared upon a microscope slide, dried, stained, and examined – fast, cheap, capable in primitive conditions. DNA probes are expensive high tech that do not like condensing moisture and high ambient temps. Nobody dies of cancer. It is the sequelae that are fatal.

    A half-century of State-mandated charity gushing Grand Guignol tsunamis of compassion into the Third World is obscene. An advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment – and the more that is required. The rational and economic solution is to do nothing. Zero. Poverty will promptly disappear as gods beam their approval over landscapes tesselated with bloated corpses. Their Will Be Done.

  4. Sound quite encouraging but Uncle has a point. Pap smears are still cheap and robust, aren’t they? It would also have been nice to see an ROC curve in the original article.

  5. Jason Dick

    From reading the article, it looks like it’s mostly of use in the developed world, as it is quite cheap (article says $5 per test), where people aren’t likely to get pap smears regularly. In that situation, the test prevented about 1/3rd more deaths than those that got pap smears.

  6. MadScientist

    I doubt the smears will ever become only of historical interest; they are far simpler and don’t really require terribly expensive equipment. Even in the ‘first world’, unless the DNA test becomes cheap and widely available, the ol’ smear test will persist. Personally I’d still advocate that histologists/pathologists learn about the test because you really don’t want someone taking up a lab job and going “oh no, I can’t do this test because I don’t have the magic DNA analyzer”.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine the Omega navigational system being shut down (how do submarines navigate without it), but Omega is long gone, airplanes and ships use GPS, and submarines – well, they still get along.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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