The effectiveness of at-home smear tests in picking up the warning signs of cervical cancer is being trialled in a new study.
All women aged 25 to 64 who are registered with a GP in the UK are invited for a cervical screening every three to five years.
This involves a small sample of cells being collected from the cervix, the lowest part of the womb, to test for cancer-causing variants of the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Nearly all (99.8%) cervical cancer cases are preventable, often when cell abnormalities are detected before a tumour has developed.
Read more: DIY smear tests could be a 'game changer'
Smear test uptake is worryingly low, however, with less than three quarters (72.2%) of eligible women in England alone being "adequately screened" in 2019/20.
With embarrassment holding many back, scientists at King's College London are leading the "game changing" study to uncover whether cervical screening can be effectively carried out from the comfort of a woman's home.
"Self-sampling is a game-changer for cervical screening," said lead investigator Dr Anita Lim.
"Almost half of women in some parts of London aren't up to date.
"A variety of barriers can stop women from coming, even though it can be a life-saving test.
"These could be for physical, practical or personal reasons, as well as social or cultural taboo.
"This simple and convenient vaginal swab can be taken in the privacy and comfort of your own home."
Read more: One in 10 women think HPV is 'dirty'
Failing to attend smear tests has been blamed for many of the over 3,000 new cervical cancer cases that arise every year in the UK.
Screening is not routinely carried out before a woman turns 25 due to her risk of cancer being very low and any abnormalities often resolving without treatment. The risk of the disease also declines after the age of 65.
Watch: Cara Delevingne's sister has smear test live on TV
The King's study, which will run until December 20201, involves at-home smear tests being given to more than 31,000 eligible women who are at least six months overdue for a cervical screening.
The swabs, which look for HPV, will be posted or handed out by GPs to women in five London boroughs where cervical screening attendances are particularly low – Barnet, Camden, Islington, Newham and Tower Hamlets.
Research demonstrates 99% of women can carry out a self-swab effectively, according to the King's scientists.
Read more: Smear test uptake hits all-time low
Completed tests will then be sent to a laboratory for testing, with results being delivered to the women directly and their GP.
If a worrying HPV variant is detected, the woman will be invited to have a standard follow-up screening at her GP surgery.
"Women who don’t come for regular screening are at the highest risk of developing cervical cancer," said Dr Lim.
"It is crucial we find ways to make cervical screening easier for women to ensure they are protected from what is a largely preventable cancer."
Watch: Terminally-ill cancer patient wants cervical screening age lowered
During the UK's first coronavirus lockdown in March 2020, many cervical screening programmes were paused and appointments postponed.
The NHS states invitations are now being sent out.
Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust has warned, however, "we know in some areas this is not the case and as health services are extremely busy just now it may take longer to get an appointment".
Speaking of the King's research, trial investigator Professor Peter Sasieni said: "The health service is under enormous strain from the pandemic and GPs are working flat-out to provide COVID [the disease caused by the coronavirus] vaccination.
"This innovation allows women to be screened whilst maintaining social distancing and with minimal involvement from their GP practice.
"Cervical cancer prevention has improved dramatically with improved screening and HPV vaccination.
"Innovations, such as self-sampling, should help to ensure this once common cancer is made rare."