'Huge difference': Simple sponge test that prevents cancer 'hiding in plain sight'

The capsule sponge test

The capsule sponge test should be rolled out more widely to prevent cancer deaths, warns charity

Adam Chapman

By Adam Chapman

Published: 05/02/2024

- 17:57

An innovative test that collects cells from the oesophagus should be rolled out more widely in order to prevent cancer deaths, warns one cancer charity

A simple test that involves a patient swallowing a dissolvable pill on a string should be made more available in order to prevent cancer deaths, a charity has warned.

The capsule sponge test, previously known as cytosponge, collects cells from the oesophagus to detect abnormalities that could increase the risk of oesophageal cancer.

Oesophageal cancer affects around 9,300 Britons a year, says Cancer Research UK.

Symptoms often surface at a later stage and they are often mistaken for everyday ailments, such as indigestion.

Doctor talking to a patient

The five-year survival rate of oesophageal cancer is less than 20 percent

Getty Images

As a result, the five-year survival rate of oesophageal cancer is less than 20 percent, but this jumps to 55 percent if detected early at stage one, underscoring the importance taking steps to prevent it.

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, who set up Heartburn Cancer UK after her husband Mike, 47, died of oesophageal cancer in 2002, is pushing to make the capsule sponge test more widely available in a bid to get patients diagnosed earlier and improve their odds of survival.

Her campaign is supported by studies which found the test can more readily detect Barrett’s oesophagus - a condition that increases the risk of the deadly cancer.

At present, the sponge test offered only to higher risk patients as an alternative to endoscopy as part of NHS pilot schemes.

An endoscopy - a procedure that involves putting a camera down your throat - is the main way oesophagus cancer is diagnosed.

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

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

Man holding his painful stomach

The symptoms are often mistaken for everyday ailments, such as indigestion


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.”

Cancer Research UK is working with the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) on the BEST4 trial, which will recruit 120,000 people in a bid to explore if the capsule sponge test can reduce deaths from oesophageal cancer.

“If this trial is successful, it could see the test rolled out more widely across the UK,” Dr Ambler said.

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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