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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 February 2006, 18:17 GMT
Simple test detects gullet cancer
By Pallab Ghosh
BBC News science correspondent

Alan Bridge
Alan Bridge was impressed with the new device
Researchers in Cambridge have developed a simple test for the fastest growing cancer in the western world.

The test for cancer of the gullet should eventually lead to earlier diagnosis of a disease that kills more than 7,000 people each year.

At present, the only way of checking for early signs is to push a tube down the gullet with a camera on it.

That is a risky and expensive procedure, and so doctors tend not to screen for the condition.

They told me that it would hurt a bit when it was pulled out - but I didn't even know it was there
Alan Bridge

Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, of the Medical Research Council, has developed a simpler technique.

It involves swallowing a spongy pill with a piece of string on it.

Once in the gullet, she pulls the pill out which gently scrapes cells from the gut wall which she then tests for early signs of the condition.

Dr Fitzgerald said: "Unfortunately most people aren't diagnosed - so they won't know they've got it - until they get their cancer, by which time its too late.

"So if we were able to diagnose it at that stage we may be able to cure them - indeed if we get people at the very early stages the cure rate is 80%."

Successful trial

Alan Bridge is one of the first people to try out the new pill on a string technique.

He said: "I didn't even feel it. They told me that it would hurt a bit when it was pulled out - but I didn't even know it was there."

Some people think that it is the pace of life that is to blame for the rise in this type of cancer.

Heartburn increases the risk of the disease. More than 7,000 people die each year.

And the number of cases have increased by 350% over the past 20 years.

Professor Ron Laskey, who also works at the MRC Cancer Unit in Cambridge, said it was a trend that is likely to continue.

"The thing that concerns us in particular at present is that its increased extraordinarily rapidly in the western world in the western world.

"It is the fastest growing cancer at present, and its not clear why.

"One possibility is that acid indigestion caused by high pressure lifestyles is a factor."

It will be a few years before the test is more widely available.

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