Mobile unit offers game-changing test for cancer risk

Updated: Jun 10, 2021

Cambridge GPs host the UK’s first mobile testing unit for people at risk of oesophageal cancer.

A new ‘game-changing’ test, which might save lives by spotting the early warning signs for cancer, is being brought to the doorstep of people in the Cambridge area.

The Cytosponge was invented and developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and her University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital teams.

Liz Chipchase was one of the first patients to trial the Cytosponge, after being treated for years for acid reflux/heartburn.

The Cytosponge, or ‘sponge on a string’ pill and lab test, identifies people with Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition that can increase a person’s risk of developing oesophageal cancer. The cheap and simple test can be done in a GP surgery instead of a referral to hospital for an endoscopy.

When the pill is swallowed it expands into a small rough textured sponge in the stomach.

The sponge is pulled back up by the string, collecting some of the cells lining the food pipe, which are sent off to the lab for analysis.

Patients from Granta Practices, who have surgeries in Sawston, Linton, Royston and Great Shelford, will be some of the first in the UK to have the 10-minute Cytosponge test outside a hospital setting or a medical trial.

They will be invited to the innovative mobile unit, that’s been funded and equipped jointly by Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), the charity that promotes awareness and champions early oesophageal cancer diagnosis, and Innovate UK funded Project DELTA, which is rolling out the sponge test technology as a routine procedure in GP practices and other locations.

Incidence rates of oesophageal adenocarcinoma (oesophageal AC), the most common cancer of the food pipe in the UK, have increased six-fold since the 1990s, but survival remains poor (at just 17% after five years).

Early diagnosis is key to survival for oesophageal cancer. At present, we have to send people we’re concerned about to hospital for an endoscopy. But the Cytosponge test is a quicker, cheaper, easier and a less invasive way to look for and monitor people who could be at risk of this dangerous, but often preventable, cancer.

Said Dr James Morrow, GP and Managing Partner at Granta Medical Practices, who volunteered to have the Cytosponge test, below.

A recent Cancer Research UK funded medical trial of the Cytosponge picked up 10 times more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition, than the GP’s usual first course of action.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK said:

“It’s exciting to see this pilot of the Cytosponge in a primary care setting get off the ground, following over a decade of research by Cancer Research UK-funded scientists.”

By combining clinical expertise with cutting edge research our new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital will create the optimum environment for more practice-changing breakthroughs in early detection.

The new hospital will include an innovation hub to encourage and facilitate the development and testing of new devices to identify the earliest signs of cancer.