Bowel cancer test for £4 could save thousands of lives

The £4 bowel cancer breakthrough: Cheap test could save thousands of lives by spotting early signs of the disease, researchers say

  • The £4 test is already sent out to people aged over 60 every two years
  • Scientists say it also works for over-50s who have early signs of the disease
  • Researchers examined 3,890 patients and picked up 618 potential cases 

A simple and cheap test could save thousands of lives from bowel cancer.

Costing just £4, it is already sent out to over-60s every two years. But scientists say it also works for over-50s who have early signs of the disease.

The University of Exeter researchers examined data from 3,890 patients with low-risk symptoms – those that could be put down to stomach ache or other conditions such as anaemia.

A simple and cheap test could save thousands of lives from bowel cancer by spotting early signs of the disease 

The test, which detects hidden traces of blood in faeces, picked up 618 potential cases, 43 of which led to a diagnosis of bowel cancer within a year.

Only eight cases were missed by the faecal immunochemical test – FIT for short.

The scientists are calling for it to be rolled out across the NHS.

‘Our findings are very exciting,’ said Sarah Bailey, who led the school of medicine study.

‘We show that this simple and inexpensive test performs exceptionally well in this group of patients with low-risk symptoms, to quickly and accurately tell us who is likely to not have colorectal cancer, and who should be referred for investigation.

‘At a time when hospital services face a backlog as a result of Covid-19 measures, making this decision quickly can ensure the right people are investigated and treated as quickly as possible, which can help save lives.

‘We are now calling for FIT to be evaluated for use across the entire healthcare spectrum, not just in primary care, and in combination with other clinical markers of cancer such as blood test results.

The test, which detects hidden traces of blood in faeces, picked up 618 potential cases, 43 of which led to a diagnosis of bowel cancer within a year

‘A logical step would be to evaluate how FIT can be used in hospital settings, to help the NHS recover from the backlog that has built up following the Covid crisis.’

Dr Bailey said there was a strong argument for more research to evaluate the test in the under-50s because bowel cancer rates were on the rise in this age group.

The disease kills around 45 people every day in the UK. It is more likely to be curable if it is detected at an early stage.

Commenting on the study, Dr Jodie Moffat of Cancer Research UK said: ‘FIT is already being used for people who don’t have symptoms in the bowel screening programme.

‘So it’s fascinating to see how this test may also be used in patients with low-risk symptoms to identify who needs further investigation.

‘As with all tests, FIT isn’t perfect and some cases can be missed so it’s important that anyone whose symptoms persist, change or worsen contact their GP, even if they’ve recently had a negative FIT result.’

The Exeter findings are in the British Journal of Cancer. They were based on a six-month survey of all healthcare providers in south-west England during 2018.

Another study published recently suggested that bowel cancer diagnoses fell last year following the introduction of the first Covid lockdown.

Between April and October, more than 3,500 fewer patients than expected were diagnosed with the condition, according to researchers from the University of Oxford. 

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