We had a lovely update from Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK) this week regarding the new mobile unit offering the Heartburn Sponge Test. Inside the unit, patients can have a quick but potentially lifesaving test that checks for signs of oesophageal cancer. The mobile unit has been funded and equipped jointly by Heartburn Cancer UK, the charity that promotes awareness of oesophageal cancer, and Project DELTA, funded by Innovate UK. The Hospital Saturday Fund was delighted to grant £2,000 towards the project in January 2021.
About the mobile unit
Initially, the mobile unit is being made available to patients in Cambridge who belong to Granta Practices and who suffer from heartburn.
The first patients were received at the mobile unit, Shelford GP surgery, on Friday 11 June 2021.
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.
Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK)
Mimi McCord (pictured) is chairman of Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK). She set up the charity when her husband died from cancer of the oesophagus after inadvertently ignoring early warning signs of persistent heartburn. “Early diagnosis is vital”, she says. “By funding the mobile test unit and bringing the test to the doorsteps of GPs, we can help more people be seen sooner, and do it in a much less intimidating and more convenient way.
“If we pick up more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus or early signs of cancer, we are much closer to preventing people from dying unnecessarily.
“This is so often a preventable disease but we just have to be clever about how we do it. The mobile unit and the Heartburn Sponge Test, using the Cytosponge, is a clever way. We hope to raise more money to widen the reach of this initiative as far as we possibly can, and we thank everyone who has supported us so far.”
New test has the potential to both cut waiting lists and save more lives
The ‘heartburn sponge’ (or Cytosponge and special lab test) was developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald (pictured above in main picture), a Heartburn Cancer UK trustee, and her University of Cambridge and Addenbrooke’s Hospital teams. The ‘sponge’ is initially the size of a large vitamin tablet. It is swallowed with some water, which allows the capsule to dissolve in the stomach, releasing a small sponge. The sponge is then retrieved using a string, catching cells on the way back up.
The whole process takes less than 10 minutes and is much easier, cheaper and less invasive than an endoscopy performed in a hospital, which is the normal way the NHS checks for these issues.
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.
Results so far
During recent trials of the Cytosponge, early cancer was identified in some patients. One of these was Liz Chipchase, 71, from Cambridge. 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. Oesophageal cancer is often found late and is more usually fatal. Only 17% of people diagnosed with it live for a further five years or more after diagnosis.
Dr James Morrow features in our main picture above. He is GP and Managing Partner at Granta Medical Practices. As far as he is concerned, “Early diagnosis is key to survival for oesophageal cancer. The Heartburn Sponge Test, using the Cytosponge and lab test, is a game-changer when it comes to picking up early cell changes, which could be cancer or the pre-cancerous condition, called Barrett’s oesophagus,”
He added, ”At present, we have to send people we’re concerned about to hospital for an endoscopy. But the Heartburn Sponge Test is a quicker, cheaper, easier and a less invasive way to look for and monitor people who could be at risk of this dangerous, but often preventable, cancer. The test at the mobile unit will – at the very least – bring peace of mind to some of our patients and could – for others – catch serious conditions much earlier than they would through other processes.”
To find out more about Heartburn Cancer UK (HCUK), please visit their website heartburncanceruk.org