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10 June, 2021 - 20:44 By Tony Quested

Cambridge GPs host UK’s first heartburn cancer test unit

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

Patients from Granta Practices, which has surgeries in Sawston, Linton, Royston and Great Shelford, are some of the first in the UK to have the simple 10-minute Heartburn Sponge Test outside a hospital setting or a medical trial.

They have been 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.

At the mobile unit – which is the first of its kind – patients on medication for heartburn are being invited to have a quick but potentially lifesaving test, using a ground-breaking new detection technique for early signs of oesophageal cancer, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

The first patients are expected at the mobile unit at Shelford GP surgery tomorrow (Friday, June 11).

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 per cent after five years). Research shows, however, that 59 per cent of cases of cancer of the oesophagus in the UK are preventable.

Dr James Morrow, GP and Managing Partner at Granta Medical Practices, said: “Early diagnosis is key to survival for oesophageal cancer. The Heartburn Sponge Test, using the Cytosponge and lab test, is a game-changer when it comes to picking up early cell changes, which could be cancer or the pre-cancerous condition, called Barrett’s oesophagus.

“At present, we have to send people we’re concerned about to hospital for an endoscopy. But the Heartburn Sponge 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.

“The test at the mobile unit will – at the very least – bring peace of mind to some of our patients and could, for others, catch serious conditions much earlier than they would through other processes.”

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

Following its stay in Cambridge, the mobile Heartburn Sponge Test unit will move on to Essex and then Suffolk as the pilot aims at proving a wider benefit to the NHS.

It is hoped this could one day become a test used by GP surgeries throughout the country to identify potential issues for people who are on long-term heartburn medication, or when someone has had heartburn or indigestion for three weeks or more.

The nurse-led unit is being funded through a partnership between Heartburn Cancer UK (the charity that promotes awareness and champions early diagnosis), the University of Cambridge (which created the Cytosponge), Project DELTA (which is funded by Innovate UK to roll out the new technology as a routine procedure in GP practices and hospitals, in partnership with Medtronic which makes the device, and Cyted whose laboratories perform the diagnostic test.

Collected cells will be sent to the Cyted lab to be checked using an advanced artificial intelligence-based diagnostic test developed by the University of Cambridge.

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