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Cambridge GPs host UK’s first heartburn cancer test unit

A new ‘game-changing’ test, which might save lives by spotting the early warning signs for cancer, is being brought to the doorstep of people in the Cambridge area.

Patients from Granta Practices, who have surgeries in Sawston, Linton, Royston and Great Shelford, will be some of the first in the UK to have the simple 10-minute Heartburn Sponge Test outside a hospital setting or a medical trial.

They will be invited to the innovative mobile unit, that’s been funded and equipped jointly by Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), the charity that promotes awareness and champions early oesophageal cancer diagnosis, and Innovate UK funded Project DELTA, which is rolling out the sponge test technology as a routine procedure in GP practices and other locations.

At the mobile unit – which is the first of its kind – patients on medication for heartburn will be invited to have a quick but potentially lifesaving test, using a ground-breaking new detection technique for early signs of oesophageal cancer, developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

The first patients are expected at the mobile unit at Shelford GP surgery on Friday 11 June.

Recent trial picked up 10 times more worrying pre-cancerous conditions

A recent Cancer Research UK funded medical trial picked up 10 times more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition, than the GP’s usual first course of action.

The BEST3 trial involved more than 13,000 people and included research through GP practices which was facilitated by the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group.

It used the ‘heartburn sponge’ (or Cytosponge and special lab test) developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, a Heartburn Cancer UK trustee, and her University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital teams.

The trial also identified early cancer in some patients.

One person particularly thankful for the sponge test is 71-year-old Liz Chipchase from Cambridge

Liz Chipchase joined the BEST3 medical trial to help out. She’d been treated for acid reflux/heartburn for 40 years but didn’t expect any issues to show up. The results of the sponge test revealed she, in fact, had oesophageal cancer.

Fortunately - she feels ‘completely well thanks’ to the sponge test trial - it was found at an early stage and was treatable.

Liz was one of the lucky ones. Because oesophageal cancer is often found late, is more usually fatal. Only 17% of people diagnosed with it live for a further five years or more after diagnosis.

Following its stay in Cambridge, the mobile Heartburn Sponge Test unit will move on to Essex and then Suffolk as the pilot aims at proving a wider benefit to the NHS.

It is hoped this could one day become a test used by GP surgeries throughout the country to identify potential issues for people who are on long-term heartburn medication, or when someone has had heartburn or indigestion for three weeks or more.

14/06/2021