Screening for cervical cancer to be revolutionised with HPV testing

New technology used in cervical cancer screening

University of Sydney molecular biology researcher Professor Brian Morris' innovation used in new cervical screening program to be rolled out in Australia from today.
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Ground-breaking technology patented by University of Sydney researchers will be used in the new National Cervical Screening Program to be implemented in Australia from 1 December 2017.

Based on new evidence and better technology, the National Cervical Screening Program is changing by replacing the traditional pap smear with a new test which detects human papillomavirus (HPV) infection, in effort to improve early detection. While the current Pap test can detect abnormal cell changes, the new Cervical Screening Test will detect HPV infection that can cause the abnormal cell changes prior to the development of cancer. Persistent HPV infection is the cause of almost all cervical cancers. However, this usually takes a long time to develop, often more than 10 years.

The procedure for collecting the sample for HPV testing is the same as the procedure for having a Pap smear – a healthcare provider will still take a small sample of cells from the woman’s cervix, and the sample will be sent to a pathology laboratory for testing.

The technology to detect HPV was originally invented by University of Sydney researcher Professor Brian Morris, and Dr Brian Nightingale when in the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, who together hold the world’s first patent for the HPV technology lodged with the patent office in 1987. The University of Sydney patenting process in the US, Europe, Japan and Australia was funded by Roche Diagnostics.

“It is now well-established that high-risk HPV types are the cause of 99.9 per cent of cervical cancers,” said Professor Morris, a molecular biology researcher from Sydney Medical School’s Bosch Institute and School of Medical Sciences.

“Testing for HPV is more accurate than pap smears and will save more women from getting cervical cancer. The pap smear was invented over 70 years ago, so the change is welcome.

“The Australian Government has recognised the superiority of HPV testing, so from 1 December we will switch to HPV testing for primary cervical screening of women in Australia.

“After three decades of hard work, I am very pleased that these changes are happening.

“The next step to further improve cervical screening is to make these tests more readily available to women, especially those who live in remote areas, are too busy, or who for religious or other reasons are averse to traditional sample collection, via a home-collection kit.

“We’re currently working on making available a test where women can collect their own sample at home and mail to a lab for testing. Their nominated doctor would then be informed of the result and tell them if they need to attend for further examination.

“Being a molecular test that involves DNA (which is quite stable), the test lends itself to self-sampling at home by means of a tampon or other device. This will potentially improve uptake of cervical screening tests and prevent further cancers.”

The technology used in the HPV testing is called ‘the polymerase chain reaction’ (PCR). At the time of Morris and Nightingale’s invention, PCR had been developed to test for mutations in beta-globin that cause the genetic blood disease Thalassemia. The researcher’s test was the first use of PCR for viral detection, specifically for detection of cancer-causing strains of human papillomavirus (HPV).

Human Papilloma Virus fast facts:

  • The human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common infection in females and males.
  • Many people will have HPV at some time in their lives and never know it.
  • There are more than 100 different types of HPV that can affect different parts of the body. HPV types 16 and 18 are those most commonly associated with cervical cancer. But over 10 other cancer-causing HPV types will be detected by the new test. Genital HPV is spread by genital skin to genital skin contact.
  • Most HPV infections clear up by themselves without causing any problems. Persistent genital HPV infections can cause cervical abnormalities, which, if they continue over a long period (usually more than 10 years), can lead to cervical cancer.
  • It is important to remember that most women who have HPV clear the virus and do not go on to develop cervical abnormalities or cervical cancer.

Twenty five years on

Image of Prof Steve Robinson

Professor Steve Robinson (second from left) was a Bosch Young Investigator even before the Bosch YIs were formed. After completing in 1985 his PhD with the current Bosch Director (Professor Stone, at right) at the University of NSW, he undertook postdoctoral work, first (1986-1991) with Professor Bogdan Dreher (left) at Sydney and then, in the early to mid-1990s at the University of Queensland. His PhD and postdoctoral work focused on mechanisms underlying development of mammalian retina, on the morphology of Muller cells in vascular and avascular retinae, the concept of common timetable in the development of visual pathways in birds and mammals, and the role of astrocytes in production of glutamate for neurones. During his years in Sydney. Steven collaborated also with fellow 'early BY investigator' (now Professor) John Mitrofanis (second from right). In his research, Steve has continued his interest in glia and has developed and active interest in mechanisms underlying Alzheimer's disease and sleep apnoea. After over a decade in the Department of Psychology at Monash University, Steve moved to RMIT University in Melbourne where he is currently Discipline Leader in Psychology at the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences.

Steve was visiting Sydney to give an invited seminar in the Anderson Stuart series (title: “Neuropathology of obstructive sleep apnoea - a precursor to Alzheimer's?”) The seminar was very well attended and generated a very lively discussion. This picture was taken at a quick lunch-before-the-seminar, on August 21 2017.


Image of A/Prof Renae Ryan

Associate Professor Renae Ryan has recently been recognised in various news articles for her outstanding performance and achievements which includes being appointed as the Academic Director of SAGE, being a Leader for gender equality in Medicine and being interviewed for the University News as an influential woman in Health Research during this years International Women's Day recognition. Congratulations Renae!

Ninety five not out - Professor Emeritus William (Liam) Burke

Image of Prof Liam Burke
Liam Burke's 95th Gallery

On Friday April 21 2017, an extraordinary group - all colleagues, family or friends of Liam Burke - gathered in the Courtyard of the Anderson Stuart Building to celebrate his 95th birthday.

They came from Queensland (David Vaney), from Canberra (Lauren Marotte, Bill Levick, Eva Elekessy, Bob Tupper), from Melbourne (Sandra Rees, Vidayasagar), from all over the University campus, from retirement.

We all wished to celebrate with Liam, and to acknowledge his scholarship, his commitment to science and his humanity.

It was a special occasion in the history of the Department of Physiology.

Brain awareness week at Sydney International Grammar School, March 2017

Image of Brain awareness week

Dr Jin Huang and her colleagues continued to promote brain awareness to high school students this year. Dr Huang has been a long term partner scientist of the CSIRO “Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools’’ program ( During Brain Awareness Week, Dr Huang and her team visited Sydney International Grammar School on 17 March 2017. Again, we have successfully promoted neuroscience and science to Year 8 kids. To our surprise, on the day, our activities attracted some Year 12 students while they were on a break.

This year’s feedback score was the highest ever (4.8/5) proving our program is well designed and activities well executed. These fun and hands-on activities demonstrated amazing brain and body functions. The battle between their brain waves using a Mindflex Duel machine remained the all time favourite. Next in line was how smell and taste work together by tasting various flavours of jelly beans. Their pupils were certainly challenged by the pencil torch. They were flexing their biceps muscles to see who is stronger using a machine that measures electromyograms. They all look adorable/drunk trying to maintain balance using massagers! Kids also had the opportunity to exercise their fine surgical skills on lamb brains. It really was a fun and enjoyable day for us all! Some comments from the students are shown below:

  • Thanks for teaching us more about the brains. It was an eye opener :)
  • We learnt a lot of things and we want to do it again and again!!
  • Don't change. Keep everything the same!
  • I thoroughly enjoyed today!
  • It was all fun! They were all good!
  • It was a really good experience but it was really short!

Most scientists are members of the Australasian Neuroscience Society ( and Sydney Chapter of The American Society for Neuroscience (

Volunteers from The University of Sydney

Dr Jin Huang (leader); A/Profs Kay Double and Cathy Leamey; Drs Tom Duncan, Alan Freeman, Elizabeth Hegedus, Dario Protti, Atomu Sawatari and Eryn Werry; Sian Genoud, Xiaohui Lin, Eurwin Suryana and An Truong
Photographers: Dr Jin Huang and Xiaohui Lin

Permission was obtained from the team and school to publish photos on school bulletins and websites.

"Nature" cover features research collaboration with Maria Byrne's lab

Nature magazine's cover-image for March 2017 features a coral reef image that was taken as part of a nation-wide research collaboration that included Maria Byrne's Integrative Biology and Evolution of Marine and Freshwater Invertebrates lab.

March 2017 cover of Nature Magazine

March 2017 cover of Nature Magazine

The research paper is titled "Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals" and focuses on tracking the patterns and changes associated with ocean warming over an extended period of time.

The IBEMFI lab at the Discipline of Anatomy and Histology takes a multidisciplinary approach to study the effects of climate change, evolution, devlopment, and biology. Researchers and students interested in the lab can contact Maria Byrne through the lab's contact page.

Bercovici Prize - Applications now Open

Becovici Prize

Becovici Prize

Applications are now open for the Bercovici prize administered through the Bosch Institute. The Bercovici Prize - Open to candidates for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (best postgrad publication). For more information please go to here.