Swallowing a sponge could replace endoscopy as precancer test
LONDON, UK: Swallowing a sponge on a string could replace traditional endoscopy as an equally effective but less invasive means of diagnosing a condition that could be a forerunner of oesophageal cancer.
A trial invited more than 600 patients with Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition that can sometimes lead to oesophageal cancer, to swallow the Cytosponge and to undergo an endoscopy. Almost 500 more people with symptoms like reflux and persistent heartburn underwent the same tests.
The Cytosponge proved to be a very accurate means of diagnosing Barrett’s oesophagus. More than 94 per cent of the patients who swallowed the sponge reported no serious side-effects. Patients who were not sedated for the endoscopy were more likely to rate the Cytosponge as a preferable experience.
Lead author Prof. Rebecca Fitzgerald, based at the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge, said: “The Cytosponge test is safe, acceptable and has very good accuracy for diagnosing Barrett’s oesophagus. It should be considered as an alternative to endoscopy for diagnosing the condition and could possibly be used as a screening test in primary care.”
Barrett’s oesophagus is caused by acid coming back up the food pipe from the stomach—known as acid reflux—which can cause symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn. Over time, people with these symptoms may develop changes in the cells that line the oesophagus. These cells could become cancerous and so patients with Barrett’s oesophagus are tested every couple of years.
Barrett’s oesophagus is usually diagnosed by a biopsy taken during an endoscopy. This can be uncomfortable and carries some risks, and it is not always practical for everyone with reflux and heartburn.
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “These results are very encouraging and it will be good news if such a simple and cheap test can replace endoscopy for Barrett’s oesophagus.”
“Death rates are unacceptably high in oesophageal cancer so early diagnosis is vital. Tackling oesophageal cancer is a priority for Cancer Research UK and research such as this will help doctors to diagnose people who are at risk quickly and easily.”
The results of the Cancer Research UK trial, involving more than 1,000 people, are being presented at the National Cancer Research Institute’s annual conference in Liverpool in the UK.