Research backs benefits of new bowel cancer test

In collaboration with the Press Association

A test being introduced by the Government is effective at detecting bowel cancer, a US study has confirmed.

Repeated screening using flexible sigmoidoscopy - or 'Flexi-scope' - increased the number of cancers detected according to data from a prostate, lung, colorectal and ovarian (PLCO) cancer screening trial, analysed by Professor Joel Weissfeld and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh.

The NHS is introducing a one-off Flexi-scope test to its bowel screening programme for all men and women when they reach 55. The test uses a camera and light at the end of a flexible tube to detect pre-cancerous growths in the lower parts of the bowel.

This will be in addition to the current Faecal Occult Blood Testing (FOBT), looks for hidden traces of blood in stools - a possible symptom of bowel cancer.

Almost 40,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, and more than 15,900 die from the disease. It is hoped that adding Flexi-scope to the current programme will cut this number and save more lives.

The research, reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that a second Flexi-scope test increased how many cancers and benign tumours were detected by 26 per cent in women and by 34 per cent in men, compared with a single test.

The US researchers analysed results from people aged between 55 and 74 who had a Flexi-scope test when they joined the study and then a follow-up screening at three years and five years. Of the 77,447 people who took part, 67,073 had at least one Flexi-scope test and 39,442 had two Flexi-scope tests.

Commenting on the findings, the researchers said that although repeated tests increases the number of cancers detected, it also increases the costs of screening, the need for follow-up tests, and the risks of complications.

Sarah Williams, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Scientists already know that one-off screening with flexible sigmoidoscopy can reduce the number of bowel cancers, detect cancer at an early stage and save lives. Following the results of a 16 year long trial, co-funded by Cancer Research UK, the UK government announced in 2010 that one-off flexible sigmoidoscopy would be incorporated into the national bowel screening programmes. Decisions are still being made about how best to do this.

"These interim trial results from the US are interesting and show that a second round of screening improved the detection of bowel cancer. But we don't yet know whether extra screening rounds can further reduce the number of bowel cancer cases or the number of people dying from the disease. The overall balance between the risks and benefits of additional rounds of screening will also need to be considered," she added.

"We look forward to seeing the next results from this trial, which should start to answer these important questions."

Copyright Press Association 2012