Thursday, December 7, 2023

Essex GPs host UK’s first heartburn cancer test unit

A NEW ‘game-changing’ test, which might save lives by spotting the early warning signs for cancer, is being brought to the doorstep of people in the Essex area.

Through an arrangement with the Chelmsford West Primary Care Network, patients from Chelmer Medical Partnership, who run surgeries in three locations in Chelmsford, will be 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 are being invited to the innovative mobile unit which is has just been located in the car park of the Chelmsford Sports and Athletics Centre and will be there until summer.

The unit is funded and equipped jointly by Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), the charity that promotes awareness and champions early oesophageal cancer diagnosis, and Innovate UK fundedProject 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 will be 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.

Some people – those over 40, who experience persistent heartburn and regularly use over the counter indigestion remedies – can also self-refer to take the test in Essex. They should call 01223 761 085 to see if they qualify.

New test has the potential to both cut waiting lists and save more lives

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% after five years).

Research shows, however, that 59% of cases of cancer of the oesophagus in the UK are preventable.

“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,” said Dr James Booth, a GP at Chelmer Medical Partnership.

“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.”

He added: “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.”

Mimi McCord, chairman of Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), who set up the charity when her husband died from cancer of the oesophagus after inadvertently ignoring early warning signs of persistent heartburn, said: “Early diagnosis is vital. By funding the mobile test unit and bringing the test to the doorstep of their GP, we can help more people be seen sooner, and do it in a much less intimidating and more convenient way.

“If we pick up more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus or early signs of cancer, we are much closer to preventing people from dying unnecessarily.

“This is so often a preventable disease but we just have to be clever about how we do it. The mobile unit and the Heartburn Sponge Test, using the Cytosponge, is a clever way. We hope to raise more money to widen the reach of this initiative as far as we possibly can, and we thank everyone who has supported us so far.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK said: “It’s exciting to see this pilot of the Cytosponge in a primary care setting get off the ground, following over a decade of research by Cancer Research UK-funded scientists. If it means we find people with Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition, sooner than would otherwise be the case, it’s possible this test could be rolled out across the NHS. 

“However, the crucial question will remain of having enough capacity in the NHS to do the test and look at the samples quickly and safely. This will require long term investment from Government and sufficient cancer staff to take and process samples.”

The mobile Heartburn Sponge Test unit will be in Essex until the summer when it will then move to 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 Chelmsford West Primary Care Network (Chelmsford West PCN), which the Chelmer Medical Practice is a part, is hoping to expand the heartburn sponge service to all member practices in the future too.


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