Cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer among women worldwide. It’s almost always caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) which can be passed from one person to another during sex. The Pap test (or Pap smear) screens women for cervical cancer but regular testing can be difficult to access — in Ontario, women are only eligible for the test every three years. This is cause for concern as early detection is key to treating cervical cancer successfully.

Waterloo Engineering alum CT Murphy (BASc ’23) recently launched CELLECT to improve women’s access to cervical cancer and HPV screening. CELLECT's innovative technology uses nanomaterials in menstrual products to diagnose HPV and cervical cancer using menstrual blood, potentially eliminating the need for Pap smears.

“Women’s health urgently needs innovation,” says Murphy. “Pap smears have been around since 1941 which, in my opinion, makes them an archaic and invasive way to get important and useful information. Not to mention that many women find the test itself an intimidating and unpleasant process. It’s definitely time for an upgrade.”

Menstrual blood, like urine, contains cells and analytes — biomarkers that can be tested to provide information about a patient’s health and indicate the need for further, more selective and specific testing. But Murphy could find no diagnostic tests using menstrual blood which alerted them to a glaring gap in women’s health research.

Murphy tackled the issue in their fourth-year Capstone design project which won them the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology (WIN)-Velocity scholarship to support their graduate studies. They also received funding from Velocity’s Up Start Program and Cornerstone Program to develop and commercialize their research. From there, CELLECT was born.

Dr. Marc Aucoin, a professor in chemical engineering, supervised Murphy’s capstone project and currently supervises their master’s work. As the director of Waterloo’s Applied Virus and Complex Biologics Bioprocessing Research Lab, Aucoin has expert knowledge in analyzing bodily fluids. His work has included the detection of metabolites in urine as well as the production of viruses in vaccination strategies.

“Murphy’s idea to use menstrual blood for diagnostic testing is game-changing,” says Aucoin. “And demonstrates the need for a diverse body of engineers problem-solving for society. With CELLECT, Murphy aims to use her research and revolutionize women’s health.”

The company is now working to develop a tampon or other menstrual product that allows menstrual blood to become a compatible analyte for HPV testing and cervical cancer testing. This will enable women to use a familiar product and bodily fluid to test for cancer.

For Murphy, CELLECT’s driving force is not merely to design a product, but to advance women’s health. Given that funding for research on women’s health is a fraction of what’s available for men’s health research, CELLECT’s mission is vital.

“Menstrual blood is such a stigmatized bodily fluid,” says Murphy. “But more than half the world’s population experiences it so let’s use it to be more informed and proactive about their health. Women’s health demands better attention and more knowledge, and I want to help make that happen.”