Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald

Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald is running a large-scale clinical trial testing the cytosponge.

A couple of years ago we wrote about a revolutionary new technique being developed for detecting oesophageal cancer – the cytosponge, or ‘sponge on a string’ test – presented by Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald at the NCRI Cancer Conference in 2008.

Oesophageal cancer – which affects nearly 8,000 people a year in the UK – is notoriously difficult to treat if found late (which it usually is), so a way to detect it earlier could save many lives.

We’re delighted to announce that we’re now funding a large-scale trial of the cytosponge, called BEST2, recruiting up to 1,400 people across the UK. If the results are positive, the trial could pave the way for the widespread introduction of the test in the future.

The cytosponge test is designed to detect faulty cells that are the hallmark of a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus, which can lead to oesophageal cancer if left untreated. We’ve written in depth about the test in our earlier post but, to put it briefly, the test involves a person swallowing a small capsule on a string, which expands in their stomach over a few minutes to form a little sponge.

The sponge is then gently pulled back out, bringing a sample of cells with it as it comes up the person’s oesophagus (gullet). These cells are then tested in the lab for any signs of Barrett’s oesophagus or oesophageal cancer.

Here’s a video showing the ‘sponge on a string’ in action:

Although it sounds a bit icky (and watching the videos will probably make you gag in sympathy) the test is a significant step forward from the current method – endoscopy – which involves a camera on a tube being inserted down the person’s throat.

And not only is the cytosponge less invasive than an endoscope, it’s also significantly cheaper. Each sponge test costs just £25, compared with around £400 for an endoscopy.

This study couldn’t come at a better time. Rates of oesophageal cancer are rising in the UK, yet the disease still remains stubbornly difficult to treat if it is diagnosed at a late stage. Picking up the earliest signs of oesophageal cancer has the potential to make a big impact in survival, and if this can be done using a humble sponge then so much the better.