Women's Health

    Health & New Tech



A portable device against cervical cancer

Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the world and the second in less developed countries. It is caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a group of sexually transmitted viruses. Two of these viruses, HPV 16 and 18 cause 70% of cervical cancers and precancerous cervical lesions.  

Early detection of cervical cancer is vital but many current detection methods for HPV require bulky equipment and are costly. To address this problem, physics engineer and AXA Research Fund Women Health Fellowship Grantee Dr. Serap Aksu from Koç University, Istanbul, has been developing a portable photonic device that can detect with high precision carcinogenic HPV 16 and 18 DNA fragments in infected cells. 

Photonics is the science and technology of light and makes use of nanosized metallic structures as biosensors. These nanostructures work thanks to an effect known as “plasmonic resonance”. This means they act as miniscule antennas, absorbing and scattering incoming light in a way that allows even a tiny concentration of biomolecules in a sample to be detected.  

The new device does not require any complicated optics and its sensitivity is close to the gold standard for biomolecule detection used in clinics. Its operation is straightforward too: you simply place a sample on the sensors in the system, shine a light on it thanks to an integrated pen-sized instrument and wait for several minutes to observe a positive or negative signal.  

The device is the first complete handheld cervical cancer screening system and consists of a metallic nanostructure patterned over an area measuring 2 x 2 cm. Its surface is modified in a way that it only senses the targeted HPV 16 and 18 DNA fragments in a sample. When these fragments stick to the sensors, they cause the reflected light from them to change. If there is no change in the optical signals, this means that the sample does not contain the target DNA. 

Another important advantage of the device is its modularity - that is, it can be adapted to test for a wide range of other viruses, including the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which can lead to AIDS. 

The device is currently at the “proof-of-concept” stage but Dr. Aksu is planning to miniaturize it further and test the system with real patient samples. The portable nature of the technology and its simplicity means that it can easily be transported and employed in remote regions in the world where healthcare – especially for women – is lacking. And given that HPV is mainly a feminine cancer, the use of the device will help close the gender-based health inequality gap in these geographical areas. 

Dr. Aksu and her team are currently involved in a consortium (1) that is studying the tumour microenvironment and are focusing particularly on brain metastasis. In this project, the sensor system is being modified to detect the biomolecules and biomechanisms that play a role in this metastasis.  





Koç University





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