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Capsule camera may help spot cancer

A camera-in-a-capsule that can be swallowed could help healthcare professionals spot early signs of oesophageal cancer, research has shown.

The hi-tech transparent device is about the size of a large multivitamin pill.

It contains a rapidly rotating laser that shines a beam of near-infrared light onto the wall of the oesophagus, or gullet, the pipe that carries food to the stomach.

Sensors record the light reflections and produce detailed microscopic images that can reveal cell changes associated with Barrett’s oesophagus, a pre-cancerous condition linked to heartburn and acid reflux.

A string-like tether allows the device to be pulled back up and transmits images to a monitor.

In tests on 13 unsedated volunteers, including six with Barrett’s oesophagus, the capsule was able to image the whole gullet in less than a minute. A full procedure involving four passes down and up the oesophagus took just six minutes.

Current screening for Barrett’s oesophagus takes well over an hour and involves passing an endoscope, a flexible telescope, down a patient’s throat.

Professor Gary Tearney, from Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “The system gives us a convenient way to screen for Barrett’s that doesn’t require patient sedation, a specialised setting and equipment, or a physician who has been trained in endoscopy.”

Barrett’s oesophagus is caused by chronic exposure to acid rising up from the stomach, leading to irritation and heartburn.

Up to one in 10 people with acid reflux will go on to develop Barrett’s oesophagus. They are much more likely to be men.

A few patients with the condition, around one in 100 each year in the UK, end up being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

Co-author Dr Norman Nishioka, also from Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “An inexpensive, low-risk device could be used to screen larger groups of patients with the hope that close surveillance of patients found to have Barrett’s could allow us to prevent oesophageal cancer.”

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