Simple sponge test can prevent cancer that ‘hides in plain sight’

The sponge test could help prevent cancer deaths by spotting abnormalities sooner (Picture: PA)

An innovative test which can prevent cancer deaths needs to be made more widely available, a cancer charity has warned.

The capsule sponge test collects cells from the oesophagus and can detect abnormalities which make a person more likely to develop oesophageal cancer.

Mimi McCord set up the Heartburn Cancer UK charity after her husband Mike died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, aged just 47.

She described the cancer as being able to ‘hide in plain sight’ as its symptoms can be mistaken for indigestion.

She’s now calling for the test to be made more widely available to catch abnormalities, called Barrett’s oesophagus, earlier, as around 59% of all cases are preventable.

If oesophageal cancer is detected early at stage one the five-year survival rate is 55% — but if not, the survival rate drops to 20%.

A Cytosponge test, which is not widely used (Picture: PA)

Mimi explained: ‘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.

‘We have a test. We know it works. People are dying while we wait to make it widely available.’

Oesophageal cancer affects about 9,300 people a year, according to Cancer Research UK.

It’s usually diagnosed using an endoscopy, or a camera down the throat – but this testing method is described as ‘labour intensive’ and the sponge test is already making a difference.

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

At the moment, it is offered only to higher risk patients as an alternative to endoscopy as part of NHS pilot schemes.

The capsule dissolves to reveal the sponge (Picture: PA)

Dr Lyndsy Ambler, senior strategic evidence manager at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘Around 59% 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.’

A spokesperson for NHS spending watchdog the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), said: ‘Our guideline committee identified cytosponge as a tool which could benefit the NHS for diagnosing dysplasia and cancer, but the quality of the evidence was not sufficient to support its use at present.

‘We are aware of two ongoing trials and are hopeful they could produce the evidence required to fully appraise the clinical and cost effectiveness of this potentially useful tool.’

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