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NEW SYSTEM MAY RECHECK PAP SMEARS

Computer technology adapted from the defense industry may help women get more reliable tests for cervical cancer, scientists say.

Scientific advisers to the Food and Drug Administration recommended Monday that a computer system called Papnet be approved to double-check Pap smears, tests that detect cancer and precancerous cell changes in the cervix.When caught early, cervical cancer is easily treated or even prevented by removing precancerous cells. Some 50 million Pap smears are done annually in the United States, but up to one-third may be misdiagnosed, the panel said.

Papnet is "a much-needed innovation," said Kathleen Swiger of the Cancer Research Foundation of America. "Every year women die needlessly of a disease that could be prevented."

Papnet, manufactured by Neuro-medical Systems of Suffern, N.Y., and a competitor, the Auto-pap QC by Neopath Inc. of Redmond, Wash., are vying to become the first computer systems to double-check Pap smears to ensure doctors didn't miss suspicious cells. The FDA panel will consider the Neopath system Tuesday.

The FDA is not obligated to follow the advisory committee recommendations, but it usually does.

Papnet cannot be used alone to diagnose Pap smears because cy-tol-ogists, the specialists who visually check hundreds of thousands of cells a day for problems, are superior, said Neuromedical chief executive Mark Rutenberg.