Cambridge GPs launch ‘pill on a string’ cancer check

The cytosponge or ‘pill on a string’ has been designed to help detect the early stages of oesophageal cancer.

Developed by the University of Cambridge and supported by the NIHR Cambridge BRC and NIHR Cambridge Clinical Research Facility, the device is now being trialled with GP patients in a mobile unit, known as the Heartburn Sponge Test unit. After Cambridge it will move on to Essex and then Suffolk as the pilot aims at proving a wider benefit to the NHS.

The hope is this new, quick and potentially life-saving device will detect the early signs of oesophageal cancer and treatment can begin a lot sooner.

The cytosponge is a small pill with a thread attached that the patient swallows, which expands into a small sponge when it reaches the stomach.

It is quickly pulled back up the throat by a nurse, collecting cells from the oesophagus which will be sent for analysis.

The procedure takes around 10 minutes and can be performed in a GP surgery.

Because oesophageal cancer is often found late, it is usually fatal. Only 17% of people diagnosed with it live for a further five years or more after diagnosis.

It is hoped the cytosponge could one day become a test used by GP surgeries throughout the country to identify potential issues for people who are on long-term heartburn medication, or when someone has had heartburn or indigestion for three weeks or more.

This is an abridged version of the article first published on our website on 17 June 2021.

Cytosponge mobile unit
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