Flexible sigmoidoscopy (also known as the ‘Flexi-scope’ test) involves placing a thin, flexible tube into the rectum and lower bowel. The tube has a tiny camera and light on the end, allowing the endoscopist to look at the inside wall of the bowel and remove any small growths or ‘polyps’.
These symptomless growths can sometimes develop into bowel cancers, so removing them at an early stage can help to prevent the disease from developing. The test can also be used to detect existing bowel cancers so that the patient can receive the appropriate treatment.
A 16-year clinical trial, co-funded by Cancer Research UK and published in the Lancet medical journal earlier this year, revealed that 10,000 people each year will avoid bowel cancer as a result of incorporating the Flexi-scope test into the national bowel screening programme.
The study also suggests that deaths from the disease will drop by almost half (43 per cent) among those who attend screening.
Now, the government has confirmed that a £60 million investment will enable the test to be rolled out nationwide over the next four years.
The announcement was made as part of a wider action plan to deliver better outcomes for patients through earlier diagnosis and faster treatment.
Health secretary Andrew Lansley said: “I want the NHS to deliver cancer survival rates comparable to the best in the world.
“We’re going to introduce an exciting new screening test for bowel cancer which could save up to 3,000 lives a year. We have secured the funding for a four-year roll out and will, subject to the green light from the UK National Screening Committee, begin pilots from spring next year.”
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, welcomed the government’s decision to introduce the Flexi-scope test and said that it needs to be rolled out as quickly as possible.
“The recent trial results of this method of detecting and removing polyps before they develop into bowel cancer can truly be called a breakthrough,” he said. “We believe it could cut the number of cases of bowel cancer by a third and deaths from the disease by almost half (43 per cent) among those attending screening – thousands of lives every year.
“Because it will prevent so many cancers, adding this test to the bowel screening programme will spare tens of thousands of families the anxiety and suffering associated with a cancer diagnosis, while also saving the NHS money. This procedure offers us a tremendous opportunity to push bowel cancer down the league table of cancer cases in the UK.”
As well as introducing the Flexi-scope test, the government also plans to invest £50 million in additional cancer drugs this year, provide funding for an extra 1,200 cancer specialists by 2012 and expand the health service’s radiotherapy capacity.
A £10.75 million awareness campaign will also focus on the signs and symptoms of breast, lung and bowel cancers.