Cancer is one of the most devastating diseases in the world today. But a group of experts may have news that could help. British scientists say they have developed a new way to diagnose certain types of cancer. They are calling the new test the ‘sponge on a string’ test.

BBC news reports on the new test.

Experts are raving about the new sponge on a string test due to its many advantages. The test is said to be inexpensive and helpful in diagnosing esophageal cancer.

How does the test work?

“Swallowed and then retrieved from the mouth by pulling on the string, the Cytosponge capsule expands in the body to collect cells on its way out. In tests on more than 1,000 UK patients, it was found to be well tolerated, safe and accurate at diagnosing Barrett's esophagus,” according to the BBC.

How is this condition telling of someone getting cancer later?

Statistics and clinical trials show that around one in 10 people with this condition later develops cancer of the food pipe.

What is the condition like?

The BBC reports, “In Barrett's, acid comes back up the food pipe from the stomach, which can cause symptoms such as indigestion and heartburn as well as changes in the normal cells that line the gullet.”

How have doctors dealt with this in the past?

In general doctors have diagnosed and monitored these patients for signs of cancer using biopsy. They take a small sample of cells - during a procedure called an endoscopy. This is when a long, flexible tube with a camera is inserted down the throat.

Why change things now?

“Researchers from the Medical Research Council Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge say the Cytosponge could replace this test. Unlike endoscopy, Cytosponge can easily be used in GP surgeries and doesn't require any sedation, say Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald and colleagues,” according to the BBC.

What are the benefits of the sponge? The new innovation is less invasive, and it is also cheaper. It costs £25 (around $40) compared with the £600 (around $900) cost of a traditional endoscopy.

The study invited more than 600 patients with Barrett's to swallow the Cytosponge and to have an endoscopy. Almost five hundred more people with symptoms such as reflux and persistent heartburn did the same trials.

Are many scientists on board?

The product is mostly being critically acclaimed, but some do have their reservations about it. The BBC reports, “Jacqui Graves, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said a less invasive test that hastened diagnosis would be welcome, but she said it would be some time before any such test would be available across the UK on the NHS.”

What did patients like more? Numerous patients in the trial said they preferred the sponge to the endoscopy. More than nine in ten patients had the ability to successfully swallow the capsule. Larger trials are now being put together to further test it.

What do other experts say about the sponge?

“Dr. Julie Sharp, of Cancer Research UK, the charity that funded the trial, 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 esophagus. Death rates are unacceptably high in esophageal cancer, so early diagnosis is vital’,” according to the BBC.

The findings were just displayed at the National Cancer Research Institute’s conference in England this week.


Gerry Oginski
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