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A simple sponge is new hope for cancer

A sponge on a piece of string could help prevent one of the deadliest cancers, it was claimed today.

The Cytosponge provides a better way of identifying a pre-cancerous condition called Barrett's oesophagus.

The condition can occur in people with a long history of heartburn. It is the main risk factor for oesophageal cancer, which affects the gullet connecting the mouth to the stomach.

Once diagnosed, patients with the cancer have only a one in 10 chance of surviving five years.

Using the Cytosponge could help doctors spot the warning signs of oesophageal cancer early and save lives.

The device is a swallowable capsule attached to a length of string which expands in the stomach into a three centimetre-wide sponge-like mesh.

Five minutes after being swallowed it is removed through the mouth by pulling on the string.

The sponge collects cells which are analysed in a laboratory for signs of the tissue changes typical of Barrett's oesophagus.

In a test of the device, doctors assessed 500 patients between the ages of 50 and 70 and found 3pc had the condition.

Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, from the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC) Cancer Cell Unit in Cambridge, said oesophageal cancer cases in the western world had risen rapidly over the past 20 years.

"As oesophageal cancer carries such a bleak prognosis for patients, it has become more and more obvious that a safe, minimally invasive and easily administered method of diagnosis for Barrett's oesophagus is urgently needed," she said.

"We developed the Cyto-sponge coupled with a molecular test at the MRC Cancer Cell Unit as a direct response to this challenge."

She added: "We are delighted that this trial has shown that patients find this method acceptable and it is a practical screening option."