Background: Testing for human papillomavirus (HPV) DNA is more sensitive but less specific than cytological analysis. Loss in specificity is most relevant in women younger than 35 years because of increased HPV prevalence. We aimed to compare conventional screening with an experimental strategy in women aged 25-34 years, and investigate the effect of different criteria of referral to define the best methods of HPV screening. Methods: Women were randomly assigned to the conventional procedure (standard cytology, with referral to colposcopy if cytology showed atypical squamous cells of undetermined significance or more [ASCUS+]) or an experimental procedure (liquid-based cytology and testing for high-risk HPV types, with referral to colposcopy with ASCUS+ cytology). Women positive for HPV (cutoff ≥1 pg/mL) but with normal cytology were retested after 1 year. The main endpoint was the presence of cervical intraepithelial neoplasia at grade 2 or more (CIN2+) in reviewed histology. The main analysis was by intention to screen. This trial is registered as an International Standard Randomised Controlled Trial, number ISRCTN81678807. Findings: We randomly assigned 5808 women aged 25-34 years to the conventional group and 6002 to the experimental group. The experimental procedure was significantly more sensitive than the conventional procedure (55 vs 33 CIN2+ lesions detected; relative sensitivity 1·61 [95% CI 1·05-2·48]), but had a lower positive predictive value (PPV; relative PPV 0·55 [0·37-0·82]). HPV testing (≥1 pg/mL) with cytology triage was also more sensitive than conventional cytology (relative sensitivity 1·58 [1·03-2·44], relative PPV 0·78 [0·52-1·16]). Relative PPV could be improved, with minimum loss in sensitivity, by use of a 2 pg/mL cutoff for HPV testing. Compared with conventional cytology, liquid-based cytology had a relative sensitivity of 1·32 (0·84-2·06), relative PPV 0·58 [0·38-0·89]). Interpretation: HPV testing alone with cytology triage could be a feasible alternative to conventional cytology for screening women younger than 35 years. Follow-up will provide data on possible overdiagnosis and on the feasibility of extended intervals.
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