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Sponge test a low-cost, easier way to spot signs of cancer

Researchers at Cambridge University in England have come up with a new method of diagnosing esophageal cancer
Could a sponge on a string help diagnose cancer? 01:09

Retiree Tony Richards survived cancer of the esophagus and gets an endoscopy every year to look for any sign of cancer's return. Richards says the endoscopy procedure -- where medics insert a camera-enabled tube-like device down an often sedated patient's throat to collect esophagus cells -- would take him out of commission for the day.

"It's not a very pleasant process," Richards says.

But now researchers at the University of Cambridge say they've come up with a less-invasive, capsule test to screen for cancer at a fraction of the cost of a traditional endoscopy. Their "Cytosponge" looks like a large multi-vitamin attached to a string. Patients swallow the capsule and then it expands into a sponge in the stomach within minutes. As the sponge is slowly pulled back out by the string, it gently collects cells from the esophagus wall.

Scientists next examine the cells for protein associated with cancer.

"The sponge contains about half a million cells," says lead researcher, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald of the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge. Fitzgerald says the sponge technique collects a more representative and comprehensive sweep of cells in the esophagus than an endoscopy, that snips cells from the esophagus wall. "If you directly compare the [Cytosponge] results to endoscopy, it's accurate to 80 to 90 percent of the time," Fitzgerald says.

Doctors tested the Cytosponge on more than a thousand people. The trial results claim more than 94 percent of the patients who swallowed the sponge reported no serious side effects. Researchers say patients who were not sedated for an endoscopy procedure were more likely to rate the Cytosponge as "a preferable experience."

Richards, who took part in the trial, says the Cytosponge is a nice alternative to the endoscopy. "Well, I think it is a no-brainer because the sponge test is so much easier," he says.

Medics say a traditional endoscopy costs around $900 per procedure. Fitzgerald says the sponge technique costs less than a hundred dollars. In a statement, British cancer charity Cancer Research UK said the Cytosponge trial results are very encouraging. "It will be good news if such a simple and cheap test can replace endoscopy," said Dr. Julie Sharp, the organization's head of health information.

Doctors hope to start offering the sponge to patients in Britain sometime next year and say it could become available in the United States within three years.

Follow Alphonso Van Marsh on Twitter: @AlphonsoVM

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