Five-minute screening test could prevent thousands of bowel cancers

In collaboration with Adfero

A one-off screening test that takes just five minutes could reduce the risk of bowel cancer by one-third and save thousands of lives, UK scientists have said.

New research, part-funded by Cancer Research UK, found that having a single flexible sigmoidoscopy, or 'Flexi-Scope', test between the ages of 55 and 64 reduced the incidence of bowel cancer by one-third. The results are published in the Lancet medical journal.

The test detects and removes growths or 'polyps' on the bowel wall before they become cancerous.

Researchers followed 170,432 people for an average of 11 years, 40,674 of whom underwent a Flexi-Scope exam.

During that time, bowel cancer mortality was reduced by 43 per cent among those who had the Flexi-Scope test compared with those who received usual care, and the incidence of cancer in the lower bowel was halved.

In contrast, the current screening method for bowel cancer - the faecal occult blood test - reduces mortality from bowel cancer by 25 per cent among those screened, and has not been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

The Flexi-Scope exam is currently only available for patients with symptoms who have been referred for further investigation.

But researchers believe it could have an important role to play in screening for bowel cancer, providing long-lasting protection and reducing the costs associated with treating the disease.

The study was led by Imperial College London and also involved scientists at University College London, Queen Mary University of London, the University of East Anglia, St Mark's Hospital in Harrow and the University of Oxford.

Lead researcher Professor Wendy Atkin, from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: "Our study shows for the first time that we could dramatically reduce the incidence of bowel cancer, and the number of people dying from the disease, by using this one-off test.

"No other bowel cancer screening technique has ever been shown to prevent the disease. Our results suggest that screening with Flexi-Scope could save thousands of lives."

Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said that the trial is the first to show the "real benefit" of flexible sigmoidoscopy in preventing bowel cancer.

"We have a tremendous opportunity to use this procedure to push bowel cancer back down the league table of cancer cases in the UK," he said.

"Cancer Research UK is calling on the next government to add the test to the existing national bowel screening programme as one of its first priorities.

"Such a programme, backed by all UK governments, would save thousands of lives and spare tens of thousands of families the anxiety and suffering associated with a cancer diagnosis, whilst also saving the NHS money."


  • Atkin W et al, Once-only flexible sigmoidoscopy screening in prevention of colorectal cancer: a multicentre randomised controlled trial, Lancet (2010) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(10)60551-X