UK scientists hope to make endometriosis screening as easy as a pregnancy test

·2-min read
Endometriosis is a gynecological condition that affects some 150 million women worldwide.
Endometriosis is a gynecological condition that affects some 150 million women worldwide.

A UK-based researcher is in the process of developing a test to detect cases of endometriosis. Similar to a pregnancy test, the future device aims to improve treatment of the condition thanks to earlier diagnosis. It can currently take over seven years, on average, to diagnose endometriosis.

Endometriosis is a gynecological condition that affects some 150 million women worldwide. It has received growing media attention over the last 10 years. Largely overlooked by medical research for centuries, this complex disorder is caused when tissue similar to that lining the womb (endometrium) begins to grow outside the uterus. This can lead to chronic pain, which can be low or high in intensity, depending on the patient.

From the onset of symptoms, it can currently take an average of around 7.5 years for definitive diagnosis of endometriosis. During this period of medical limbo, women can suffer pain that can be highly debilitating on a daily basis.

To help detect the condition more quickly, Dr Barbara Guinn, a reader in Biomedical Sciences and researcher at the University of Hull, UK, has been working to develop a test that can diagnose the endometriosis almost instantly, in a similar way to a pregnancy test.

"Our research study began in September 2018 following successful receipt of a fully funded PhD studentship from the University of Hull. Leah Cooksey is now just entering the 3rd year of her PhD and is looking at the impact of hypoxia on endometrial cells," Barbara Guinn told ETX Studio. Hypoxia is a lack of oxygen supply to body tissue.

Virtually instant results, like a pregnancy test

Procedures currently used to detect endometriosis rely on medical imaging techniques, such as endovaginal and pelvic ultrasound. Keen to develop a faster and more practical test, Dr Barbara Guinn is researching the field of immunotherapy, using a protein potentially present in the body to determine the presence of endometriosis.

"We are currently trying to create a model of early hypoxia in the lab using a machine called a hypoxia chamber. We use immortalized endometrial cells and subject them to very low oxygen tensions to see the impact this has. The uterus normally has an oxygen level of around 5% but when the endometrial cells move to the abdomen then the oxygen tension drops to around 1%. We want to see what effect that new environment (in the abdomen) has on the behavior of the cells," the researcher explains.

Although the test probably won't be ready for a few years yet, the research highlights the need for earlier diagnosis of endometriosis in order to improve its management and treatment.

In more severe cases, endometriosis patients may need to undergo surgical procedures to remove cysts and lesions caused by the condition, generally after years of suffering. However, this type of procedure does not protect patients from relapses. There is currently no definitive cure for endometriosis.