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Minnetonka High School grad invents 'smart tampon' to detect cervical cancer

The new device would use artificial intelligence to detect abnormal cancer cells in the cervix that are responsible for about 4,200 deaths in the U.S. every year.

BALTIMORE — A Minnesota woman is making headlines for creating a new way to test for cervical cancer. 

The disease kills thousands of people every year, especially over the age of 65. January is cervical cancer awareness month. 

Minnesota Oncology GYN Dr. Lauren Bollinger says, "It's the fourth most common cancer for women worldwide; it's not as common in the United States."

Dr. Bollinger says as many as 4,200 people die every year and despite the risk going down after 65 years old, pap smear testing should continue, especially if you've ever had an abnormal one.

That didn't sit well with Minnetonka native Hayley Hoaglund, especially since those tests can be so invasive.

"We were sitting around in a friend's living room and talked about everything we hated in health care and what was just really a pain and the first thing that came to mind was getting your pap smear done," said Hoaglund. "It can be painful and so we developed this idea of the smart tampon in order to be able to detect cervical cancer within the comfort of your own home."

Hoaglund graduated from the University of Minnesota and then the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, which is the only school that requires students to take an artificial intelligence course. 

Hoaglund's task was then to figure out how to use AI to solve a health care problem. She and three other classmates developed the smart tampon during the six-week course.

"It's used as a screening tool to detect cervical cancers — so cell abnormalities that are on the cervix," said Hoaglund. "It's not an absorbent device, so it's not used as a regular tampon."

The device, that's just a prototype, would need FDA approval, but pictures of it show a sensor on the top, similar to how facial recognition technology works on your cell phone.

It would scan different databases and images to help you decide if it's necessary to see a doctor. 

What comes next is to secure more funding. Ultimately, Hoaglund says it could cost up to 50% less than a pap smear and it would be reimbursed through Medicare or a commercial insurance provider. 

"You could go to your neighborhood pharmacy and receive this test and it would be prescribed to you by a physician," said Hoaglund, who says it would be accessible to more patients who experience things like transportation to sexual trauma as barriers.

"I think that it's no secret that people with cervixes have generally been marginalized whether it comes to clinical trials, research, innovation and development in the women's reproductive health space," said Hoaglund. "It's really important to keep innovating and keep seeking solutions for people with cervixes in general because we're a big part of the population and it's extremely important to address."

Doctor Bollinger also says cervical cancer is caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, and the other way to prevent it is to get one of the three FDA-approved vaccines for HPV.

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