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A misdiagnosis of a Pap smear could be a silent death sentence for a woman with cervical cancer or a precancerous condition, and it's shockingly true that as many as a third of the 50 million annual cancer tests are erroneously positive or negative.

Far too many women have died of a disease that is preventable with early detection of abnormal cells. In this day of advanced medical knowledge and treatment options, that figure is unacceptable and now apparently is no longer necessary.Scientists say computer technology adapted from the defense industry may help women get more reliable results from the test. The computer system called Papnet appears to be one of the best things to come from defense-related research.

Judging from its results in the laboratory, the computer test should be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The computer would not replace specialists who visually check hundreds of thousands of cells a day for problems, but it would be a safety cushion to recheck smears.

Papnet uses computer technology created to detect missiles in the Star Wars defense system. It picks the 128 most abnormal-looking cells from every Pap smear and greatly enlarges them. Any suspicious results are sent back to the lab for diagnosis.

In a test of 1,247 Pap smears, Papnet caught 517 of the 534 abnormal samples, for a 97 percent success rate. What an improvement over the 70 percent accuracy rate of human detectors.

This innovation should be put to use as rapidly as possible. About 16,000 American women will get invasive cervical cancer this year. Among them are too many unlucky victims of misdiagnosis whose chances of survival would have been better with early detection.

Quick approval of the new detection technique can prevent needless deaths.