A team of researchers at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville found the DNA of tumour cells trapped in tampons after they were used in ovarian cancer patients.
"In about 60 per cent of patients who had their [fallopian] tubes still intact, we were able to pick up tumour cells, or essentially tumour DNA, in the vaginal tract," one of the study's authors, Dr. Charles Landen, told Live Science.
The importance of intact fallopian tubes is vital to the findings because the tubes connect the ovaries with the lower parts of the reproductive system, including the uterus and the vagina.
In the journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, the authors of the study conceded that the detection rate was too low and method too expensive for widespread use but said it demonstrated the potential to identify early cancer cells.
"It's an important step toward the Holy Grail, but we're certainly not there yet," said Landen.
The limited study looked at 33 women, eight of which had advanced serous ovarian cancer, the most common form of the disease, but three of these women had their fallopian tubes tied, meaning the cancer cells could not travel from the ovaries to the vagina for detection.
In the remaining five women with intact tubes, doctors found in three patients that cells were present in the tampon with the exact same mutation, called TP53 mutation, which could also be detected in the tumour itself. This is an indication that cancer cells do move from the upper part of the reproductive system to the lower part of the vagina.
Deep sequencing DNA detection was used to test the tampons and on average the mutated DNA made up just 0.05 per cent of the total sample, Landan said.
"That's the real power of the technology, but [the test] still needs to be a little bit better," Landen told the website.
"What we need to do is pick up early-stage or even precancerous lesions, before it becomes malignant."
According to Cancer Australia, about 1,470 Australia women will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2014 and the five-year relative survival rate currently sits at 43.4 per cent.
While previous screening tests for ovarian cancer have been ineffective, researchers are hopeful that by repeating this study in a larger group of women with ovarian masses they might be able to develop an early detection test for the disease.