ANTHC launches first in-state lab for cervical cancer screening

Dr. James Tiesinga (left) and molecular scientist Dr. Shannon Albright (right) of ANTHC’s lab demonstrate how to operate their new Roche 5800 analyzer, which tests samples for HPV. (Photo courtesy of ANTHC)

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium started a new program in May to test for human papillomavirus, or HPV, in its own lab. HPV, when untreated, causes 95% of all cervical cancers. But if caught early, infections can be easily treated in most cases. 

Dr. James Tiesinga, medical director for the lab, said HPV testing in Alaska used to require sending samples out of state. He said in-state testing will be especially meaningful for Alaskans living in remote areas. 

“If we can get these results back to the provider in those communities before the woman returns to her village, all the better, because then we can schedule the appropriate follow up, maybe in some circumstances, even perform the requisite follow up before the woman has returned back to her village,” Tiesinga said.

Rates of cervical cancer have gone down over the past few decades but screening rates in Alaska are lower than the national average. In the US, it’s recommended that women aged 21-65 get cervical cancer screenings at least every three years. Alaska Native and American Indian women have the highest rate of cancer from HPV and are twice as likely to die from it. 

This type of HPV test is relatively new; the FDA approved it in April 2020. Tiesinga said the most promising part of the new program is that women will eventually be able to collect their own samples. Self-collecting for the test was approved by the FDA in May. 

Lab director Dr. James Tiesinga demonstrates the new HPV lab testing technology. (Photo courtesy of ANTHC)

Tiesinga said he hopes people can self-collect in the state within the next six months and that could reduce cervical cancer rates.

“I believe we’re going to see those high rates of cervical cancer and deaths from cervical cancer start to drop as women now in even the most remote areas are able to self collect and send those samples in as often as they need to,” Tiesinga said.

Tiesinga said the lab is now accepting samples from all tribal partners in Alaska and can process them in 24-48 hours. Tiesinga said the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has one of the first labs in the country to offer this type of HPV test in-house and is the only one to serve a primarily Alaska Native and American Indian population. 

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Rachel Cassandra covers health and wellness for Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Rachel here.

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