The University of Hong Kong yesterday unveiled a computerised system to fast-track Pap smears, but stressed that quality will not be sacrificed for quantity. The automated technology for screening cervical cells, the first of its kind in Asia, will allow the HKU laboratory to analyse 120,000 Pap smears a year, about 50 per cent more than its current capacity of 80,000 a year, said Annie Cheung Nga-yin, pathologist in charge of the laboratory and an associate professor in the department of pathology. The university acquired the equipment, which has been approved by the United States' Food and Drug Administration, last month. Whereas traditional Pap tests rely on the human eye to search for abnormal cells under a microscope, a computer will help technicians do the task faster and reduce human error. Professor Cheung said searching for abnormal cells was the most trying part of a pathologist's work. 'It is just like finding a needle in a haystack,' she said. Slides containing cells are treated with DNA-sensitive dyes before the imaging process begins. The computer then identifies 22 images of suspicious cells in each slide, and technicians focus on interpreting the results. 'That will save a lot of manpower and can reduce the error due to human fatigue. It improves the efficiency of the screening,' she said. Professor Cheung said all smears would be screened twice to ensure accuracy, even with automation. 'Quality control is most important. We believe that no matter how good a cyto-technician [cell specialist] or pathologist is, human error is inevitable. 'Therefore, re-screening is a must for us. All screens will be read twice before the report is sent out.' The HKU laboratory will have test results ready within eight days, instead of the two weeks previously required. The HKU's biggest client, the Family Planning Association, welcomed the move towards automation. 'But whatever we do in terms of technology development, the essential thing is for women to come forward to accept this testing,' said the association's executive director, Susan Fan Yun-sun. 'Do not delay. Come forward for a Pap smear in order to guarantee your health,' she added.