CI MED Students Launch Multi-Tiered Approach to Boost Cervical Cancer Screening Access

May 18, 2023
Beth Hart
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A team of students at Carle Illinois College of Medicine has launched a multi-pronged effort aimed at improving access to life-saving cervical cancer screening, especially in underserved communities. The student team is engineering a new rapid screening test to reach populations with limited access to gynecological care and conducting clinical research on strategies to boost patient follow-up when test results are positive.

<em>Cervicare co-founders Bhargavee Gnanasambandam (left) and Nellie Haug  (right). </em>
Cervicare co-founders Bhargavee Gnanasambandam (left) and Nellie Haug  (right). 

Cervicare was co-founded by Bhargavee Gnanasambandam and Nellie Haug to address disparities in cervical cancer screening, especially among populations that are disproportionately affected by cervical cancer and have limited access to care. The most common test used to detect cervical cancer is a pap smear, with sampling in the doctor’s office or hospital followed by analysis by a pathologist. The costs prevent many free clinics from offering pap smears. “Women are encouraged to visit nearby hospitals for their screenings,” Haug said. “As you can imagine, many women do not follow up on these recommendations as the cost of a pap smear at a hospital, especially if the patient is underinsured or does not have insurance, can be exorbitant.” The team is using their engineering skills to design an alternative to the pap smear that would bridge the accessibility gap.

The new product, Cervicare, is a rapid bedside screening test that detects biomarkers identified in the team’s research to accurately screen for cervical cancer. “Our product will function as a comfortable, fast, and inexpensive option to revolutionize cervical cancer screening. The novel collection system is modeled off tampons to increase customer comfort, and the lateral flow biomarker test circumvents the need for pathologists which significantly decreases expense and time to results,” Haug explained, noting that results are based on the presence of biomarkers, so the test could be used either at home or in a clinic. “The mission for our product is distribution to all women, particularly in under-screened populations,” she said. 

<em>Cervicare, is a rapid bedside screening test to detect biomarkers for cervical cancer.</em>
Cervicare is a rapid bedside screening test to detect biomarkers for cervical cancer.

In addition to the biomarker research, the Cervicare team – including CI MED students Grace Brolly, Modan Goldman, and Caleb Bowman – is conducting research to better understand the extent of the disparities in diagnosing and treating cervical cancer. “Our team is using the NIH All of Us dataset to explore the relationship between social/structural determinants of health and cervical cancer. Additionally, we aim to identify and highlight the specific barriers to cervical cancer screening and management,” Goldman said. He was recently invited to present the team’s research at the NIH All of Us Researchers’ Convention.  

The Cervicare team is also working to evaluate new strategies to improve cervical cancer management by studying a new electronic reminder protocol being added at Carle this year. They’re seeking approval for a clinical research study that would look at patient populations that didn’t follow up after receiving a positive cervical cancer screening test result and compare follow-up rates before and after the new electronic reminder is implemented.

The Cervicare team’s rapid test concept won $5000 in the Health Care Track of the 2023 Cozad New Venture Challenge. Haug says they continue to seek investors to support research on biomarkers and the development of the point-of-care test before eventually seeking FDA approval. They estimate the test will cost under $35.

<em>CerviCare team from left to right: Basel Hajyousif (undergrad), Jack Lindstrom (undergrad), Katherine Park (undergrad), Caleb Bowman, Modan Goldman, Grace Brolly, Barghavee Gnanasambandam, Nellie Haug</em>
CerviCare team from left to right: Basel Hajyousif (undergrad), Jack Lindstrom (undergrad), Katherine Park (undergrad), Caleb Bowman, Modan Goldman, Grace Brolly, Bhargavee Gnanasambandam, Nellie Haug

CerviCare was one of four start-ups launched in the 2022-23 academic year through AxisMED, a student-run pre-incubator started by CI MED students.