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15 June 2020

Taylor's Case Study: A New Approach to Cervical Cancer Screening

If you asked anyone what’s the most common type of cancer among women, they would undoubtedly reply ‘breast cancer’. But how many of us are aware of its equally dangerous sibling? 

Asymptomatic at first but harder to cure when detected late, many remain uninformed until in its terminal stage. Extensively known for its association with Human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA, which is the most common sexually transmitted infection, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer among women worldwide. Infected women may experience abnormal vaginal bleeding and excruciating pain during intercourse and in their lower backs or pelvis, among other symptoms

Did you know?

In the mid-19th century, an Italian surgeon noticed that cervical cancer was rare among nuns. A century later, epidemiology work, which studies the population to find the causes of health issues and diseases, showed the correlation between highly transmissible rates and sexual intercourse.

The Malignant Growth of Cervical Cancer

While there are current treatments that will enhance a patient’s quality of life and increase their survival rate, conducting screenings, like pap smears, is the most effective in detection during the early stages. 

In fact, after an expansion of screenings, cervical cancer reduced by a substantial 50% in the United States since the mid-1970s, which discovers cervical changes before they turn cancerous. However, only 44% are ever diagnosed at an early stage, ensuing high mortality rates. 

So, why is there a low number of participation in screenings? Most screenings, like the pap smear, involve collecting cells from your cervix — the lower, narrow end of your uterus that's at the top of your vagina, with very long equipment. 

Feeling uncomfortable yet? It's no wonder, then, that the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) qualitative studies show that participant’s hesitance consists of a number of barriers including discomfort during the test.

Progressive Thinking Amidst Her Professional Life

Acknowledging the barriers of cervical cancer screenings, Professor Dr. Chong Pei Pei, from Taylor’s School of Biosciences, approaches with a new prototype for cell collection and an AI Deep Learning System for automated cell screening that will alleviate pain associated with the test and accessibility to methods for early diagnosis of the disease. 

An academic with a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, her excursion began with research upon bacterial species which can produce antibiotics, its biosynthetic genetic variation, and the regulations of antibiotic genes. 

Her progressive thought stemmed from the seemingly unfortunate gap year while waiting for the funding of her postgraduate study. Little did she know, her work as a patent paralegal, which presented her to various processes of intellectual property application for scientific discoveries and inventions, would eventually be the moments of decisions where her destiny took shape.

Through this, Prof. Chong wedded her expertise in intellectual property together with her extensive background in science and drew a parallel between the two with this mission,

“As a scientist, the role is to solve the problems in healthcare by listening to and observing the challenges and difficulties that clinicians and patients face or need to overcome.” 

Following her mission statement, she listened and gained inspiration from her former associate, gynaecologist Dr. Rohani from Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), who shared the challenges in executing pap smear samples particularly during visits to resource-scarce rural villages for wellbeing campaigns. She decided to pursue this project, especially where the situation is necessary.

A Revolutionary Arrangement

In hopes to furnish modernised medical devices and apparatuses which provide comfort and maximum efficacy, she set forth to enhance the methodology of cervical cancer screening. 

Towards this end, 3D-prototypes were designed with a new functionality that can improve the cell scraping and assortment process, in collaboration with colleagues from the School of Computing Science & Engineering's, Department of Engineering and the School of Medicine

3D-printing has been utilised for various, much expensive reasons. It was considered specifically for its prospects of the medical advancement of bioprinting where it was successful in designing and formulating surgical tools, altering the field of bioprinting, through 3D-printed liver cells that were functional for over 40 days.

So, there is no premise behind why it should not be used to provide women with a device that ensures comfort and confidence without restrictions.

Colleagues from the School of Computing Science & Engineering's Department of Computing, have since aided her in the development of a Deep Learning framework for AI-driven screening of cervical cells with the objective to automate the process of screening. 

Beyond structuring these prototypes, Prof Chong’s milestones do not end there. She further hopes,

“All O&G specialists in Malaysia and beyond will abandon the decade-old spatula and cotton swabs and switch to this new illuminated device that I’m developing that could diminish pain during the pap smear procedure and empower more women to participate in cervical cancer screening.”

In stride with WHO’s vision and the feminist movement, Professor Dr. Chong Pei Pei’s hopes that revolutionary advancement will gradually eliminate cervical cancer as a public health problem within a generation and further empower women through her modified development to take initiative and care for their own physical autonomy. 

This ought to be no quiet affair, but a loud uprising.

Megan Choong Jieh Yue is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Law (LLB) at Taylor's University. She is also the Deputy Secretary General and Assistant Director of the TLMUN annual conference, Director of HR for Taylor's Legal Aid Centre, Director of Public Relations for Centre of Research and Development of Law in Asia, as well as the sub-editor for Lexicon.

Megan Choong Jieh Yue
Guest Contributor