Sponge-on-a-string test replaces need for endoscopy for thousands of patients

A new test to help diagnose a condition that can lead to oesophageal cancer – developed by Cambridge researchers and trialled by the NHS – has reduced the need for invasive endoscopy in thousands of low-risk patients.

The NHS pilot, which has tested over 8,500 patients with the ‘capsule sponge test’, showed almost eight out of 10 patients who completed a test were discharged without the need for further testing, freeing up endoscopy capacity for higher risk patients and those referred for urgent tests for oesophageal cancer.

The test involves patients swallowing a small capsule-shaped device that contains a tiny sponge that collects cell samples for analysis before being extracted via a string thread attached to the sponge. It has been developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, Director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Fitzgerald said: “It is very exciting to see the positive results of the NHS England real-world pilot for our capsule-sponge test. This is a major step forward to making this simple test more routinely available outside of clinical trials. Timely diagnosis is vital for improving outcomes for patients.”

Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition affecting the food pipe which can go on to cause oesophageal cancer in some patients – is usually diagnosed or ruled out via endoscopy (a camera test of the food pipe) following a GP referral to a gastroenterologist or other specialist practitioner who can carry out the procedure.

The sponge-on-a-string test being trialled by the NHS can instead be carried out quickly in a short appointment, without the need for sedation.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients – they can conveniently fit the test into their day and it can often replace the need for an endoscopy while also helping to reduce waiting lists by freeing up staff and resources.

“The NHS is always striving to adopt the latest innovations and new ways of working that help improve patient experience and increase efficiency simple sponge on a string test is just one example of many pioneering tools we’ve trialled in recent years to help diagnose and treat people sooner.”

In a survey of over 350 patients who had the capsule sponge test, patients often said they would recommend the test to a friend or family member, and 94% of patients reported experiencing only mild or no pain at all.

The NHS began piloting the test during the pandemic when there was increased pressure on services and a growing backlog for endoscopy.

Gastro-oesophageal reflux, also known as acid reflux, is a relatively common condition, affecting around one to two in every ten people to some degree, and some of these people may already have or will develop Barrett’s oesophagus, which is a precursor to oesophageal cancer.

There are around 9,300 new oesophageal cancer cases in the UK every year. The key to saving lives is to detect it an earlier stage of Barrett’s oesophagus before it becomes cancerous.

The NHS pilot was launched at 30 hospital sites across 17 areas in England including Manchester, Plymouth, London, Kent and Cumbria. Evaluation of the pilot showed that using capsule sponge was highly cost effective compared to using endoscopy-only for diagnosing patients – saving around £400 per patient.

Patients with positive results from the capsule sponge test who were referred on for an endoscopy had the highest prevalence of Barrett’s oesophagus at 27.2%, compared to zero patients with negative results who completed an endoscopy.

One of the first pilot sites at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust has now performed around 1,400 capsule sponge tests – offering to both patients with reflux symptoms via a new consultant led, nurse run early diagnosis service, as well as to patients on an existing Barrett’s surveillance programme.

In the first 1000 patients, the capsule test identified Barrett’s in 6% patients with reflux and found two new cancers and three patients with dysplasia who may have had a longer time to diagnosis otherwise. While 72% reflux patients were discharged back to their GP without the need for an endoscopy.

As of January, 368 patients have had a positive test result of whom about half have confirmed Barrett’s oesophagus.

Dr Danielle Morris, a consultant gastroenterologist at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, said: “Using the capsule sponge test as a diagnosis triage tool has had huge benefits for patients, avoiding the need for unnecessary gastroscopy in almost seven out of 10 patients, and helping to reduce endoscopy waiting lists enabling us to prioritise those who really need endoscopy to have it done quickly.

“The test is performed by a single trained practitioner in an outpatient setting, so it is very resource light compared to gastroscopy, and our patients are very supportive of the service – with almost nine in 10 patients preferring the capsule sponge to a gastroscopy.”

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