New research shows that by retooling the Pap test, doctors can detect deadly ovarian cancer early on.

Scientists from Johns Hopkins University released the encouraging news Wednesday, based on a pilot study on 46 women already diagnosed with either ovarian or endometrial cancer.

They explain this is possible because cells can flake off of tumors in the ovaries or the lining of the uterus, and float down to rest in the cervix, where Pap tests are performed. These cells are too rare to recognize under the microscope, but using some sophisticated DNA testing on the Pap samples they were able to uncover the evidence — gene mutations that show cancer is present.

The new technique found all the endometrial cancers and 41 percent of the ovarian tumors, the team reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Since the research is in the very early stages, women shouldn't expect any change in their routine Paps. It will take years of additional testing to prove if the so-called PapGene technique really could work as a screening tool, used to spot cancer in women who thought they were healthy.

"Now the hard work begins," said Hopkins oncologist Dr. Luis Diaz, whose team is collecting hundreds of additional Pap samples for more study and is exploring ways to enhance the detection of ovarian cancer.

But if it ultimately pans out, "the neat part about this is, the patient won't feel anything different," and the Pap wouldn't be performed differently, Diaz added. The extra work would come in a lab.

The gene-based technique marks a new approach toward cancer screening, and specialists are watching closely.

"This is very encouraging, and it shows great potential," said American Cancer Society genetics expert Michael Melner.

"We are a long way from being able to see any impact on our patients," cautioned Dr. Shannon Westin of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She reviewed the research in an accompanying editorial, and said the ovarian cancer detection would need improvement if the test is to work.

More than 22,000 U.S. women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, and more than 15,000 die.

According to the Center for Disease Control, Latinas specifically are twice as likely to develop cervical cancer because they do not get regular pap smears.

Until now cervical cancer was often deadly because it could not be detected until the cancer was more advanced.

"If this screening test could identify ovarian cancer at an early stage, there would be a profound impact on patient outcomes and mortality," Westin said.

Endometrial cancer affects about 47,000 women a year, and kills about 8,000. There is no screening test for it either, but most women are diagnosed early because of postmenopausal bleeding.

Reporting by the Associated Press.

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