‘Pill on a string’ test to transform oesophageal cancer diagnosis

  Cytosponge  Credit: Cancer Research UK

A ‘pill on a string’ test can identify ten times more people with Barrett’s oesophagus than the usual GP route, after results from a three-year trial were published in the medical journal The Lancet.

The test, which can be carried out by a nurse in a GP surgery, is also better at picking up abnormal cells and potentially early-stage cancer.

Barrett’s oesophagus is a condition that can lead to oesophageal cancer in a small number of people. It’s usually diagnosed in hospital by endoscopy – passing a camera down into the stomach – following a GP referral for longstanding heartburn symptoms.

The Cytosponge test, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, is a small pill with a thread attached that the patient swallows, which expands into a small sponge when it reaches the stomach. This is quickly pulled back up the throat by a nurse, collecting cells from the oesophagus for analysis using a laboratory marker called TFF3.

The pill is a quick, simple and well tolerated test that can be performed in a GP surgery and helps tell doctors who needs an endoscopy. This can spare many people from having potentially unnecessary endoscopies.

In a study funded by Cancer Research UK, the researchers studied 13,222 participants who were randomly allocated to the sponge test or were looked after by a GP in the usual way. Over the course of a year, the odds of detecting Barrett’s were ten times higher in those offered the Cytosponge with 140 cases diagnosed compared to 13 in usual care. In addition, the Cytosponge diagnosed five cases of early cancer (stage 1 and 2), whereas only one case of early cancer was detected in the GP group.

Alongside better detection, the test means cancer patients can benefit from less severe treatment options if their cancer is caught at a much earlier stage.

Read the full story

Image:  Cytosponge

Credit: Cancer Research UK

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


The University of Cambridge is acknowledged as one of the world's leading higher education and research institutions. The University was instrumental in the formation of the Cambridge Network and its Vice- Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, is also the President of the Cambridge Network.

University of Cambridge (cam.ac.uk)