Sponge test can prevent killer cancer that 'can hide in plain sight’, says charity

The capsule sponge test, previously known as cytosponge, involves a patient swallowing a dissolvable pill on a string. This releases a sponge to collect cells from the oesophagus as it’s retrieved.

The test can be used to detect abnormalities that form as part of a condition known as Barrett’s oesophagus, which makes a person more likely to develop oesophageal cancer.

Oesophageal cancer affects about 9,300 people a year, according to Cancer Research UK. It is usually diagnosed using an endoscopy, or a camera down the throat.

Symptoms can be mistaken for indigestion, such as persistent heartburn or difficulty swallowing, and often materialise in the later stages.

The disease has a five-year survival rate of less than 20 percent, but this rises to 55 percent if detected early at stage one.

Mimi McCord, founder and chairman of the charity Heartburn Cancer UK, said: “Cancer of the oesophagus is a killer that can hide in plain sight.

“People don’t always realise it, but not all heartburn is harmless. While they keep on treating the symptoms, the underlying cause might be killing them.”

Ms McCord set up Heartburn Cancer UK after losing her husband Mike, 47, to oesophageal cancer in 2002.

The charity is now calling for the wider adoption of the capsule sponge test in order for patients to be diagnosed earlier and given a better chance of survival.

It comes after previous studies found the test can pick up more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus compared with routine GP care.

Currently, the test is only offered to higher risk patients as an alternative to endoscopy as part of NHS pilot schemes.

It is understood they could be rolled out further if the trials yield positive results.

Ms McCord said: “We have a test. We know it works. People are dying while we wait to make it widely available.”

Dr Lyndsy Ambler, senior strategic evidence manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Around 59 percent of all oesophageal cancer cases are preventable. Yet endoscopy, the gold standard for diagnosing this cancer, is labour intensive.

“We need better tools and tests to diagnose oesophageal cancer and to identify and monitor people most at risk.

“Backed by funding from Cancer Research UK, the capsule sponge has become one of the most exciting early detection tools to emerge in recent years.

“It’s already making a difference in pilots within the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales to reduce backlogs for endoscopy from the pandemic.”


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