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How Tampons Might One Day Help Detect Cancer

New research suggests tampons could screen for endometrial cancer

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smithsonian.com

Pap smears. Mammograms. Tampons? If science has anything to do with it, tampons could soon join the ranks of cancer detection options for women. A new study has shown that it’s possible for scientists to use tampons to detect tumor DNA from endometrial cancer.

Endometrial cancer, which affects the inner lining of the uterus, accounts for six percent of all cancers among women and is the “most common gynecologic malignancy in the United States,” according to the National Cancer Institute. But unlike breast or cervical cancers, there’s no easy or effective way to screen for the disease.

That could soon change, says Jamie Bakkum-Gamez, whose team used everyday tampons to pick up tumor DNA. She notes in a release that though a 2004 study showed that women with endometrial cancer left some signs of cancerous cells on tampons, nobody had tried to use the results to improve cancer screening techniques. Her team took up the challenge, obtaining samples from 38 women with endometrial cancer and 28 without. They analyzed ordinary tampons used by the women and isolated DNA from the samples.

The tampons used by women with endometrial cancer showed methylation—chemicals that mask genes that suppress tumors in healthy women. Methylation is a kind of molecular marker of cancer, and they found it in 9 of 12 genes they analyzed in the cancerous women. Importantly, the tampon findings were consistent with results obtained from a much more invasive procedure called “endometrial brushing,” in which a wire brush is used to scrape cells from inside the uterus.

Though the study hasn’t yet yielded a method that can be turned into a home test, Bakkum-Gamez and her team hope to identify a “final lineup” of genes that are methylated in endometrial cancer’s earliest stages, then use those genes to validate their test. A clinical trial conducted by the team is currently collecting samples from 1,000 women at high risk for the disease.

But it turns out that tampons aren’t just an everyday object with the potential to detect cancer—overseas, they’re turning into a political symbol. The Telegraph reports that more than 200,000 women have signed a petition to stop the British government from applying a “luxury” tax to tampons and other sanitary products. The law, which has been in effect since 1973, dropped from 17.5 percent to five percent in 2001. Now petitioners are calling on the government to drop the tax altogether with cries of “stop taxing our bloody tampons.”

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