‘Sponge on a string’ cancer innovation for North West Coast

9 May 2022 04:19 PM

An innovative ‘sponge on a string’ diagnostic test is set to improve cancer care and ease the pressure on health services in the North West Coast.

The potentially life-saving device, known as Cytosponge, will help identify people most at risk of oesophageal cancer – cancer of the gullet – and be available close to patients’ homes.

The Innovation Agency helped secure £500,000 from the SBRI Healthcare fund to spread Cytosponge from secondary services into the community, relieving pressure on hospital endoscopy teams.

It is administered in an outpatient setting and involves the patient swallowing a capsule attached to a ‘string’. The capsule dissolves after a few minutes to release a sponge that gathers oesophagus cells for analysis as it is pulled out. 

The test will be offered to patients on endoscopy waiting lists who have conditions such as Barrett’s oesophagus in which the lining of the gullet becomes inflamed. The test is minimally invasive and generally more comfortable for patients, needs no sedation and can be delivered in a nurse-led clinic in around 15 minutes.

By contrast, an endoscopy requires a team of specialists in secondary care and can take several hours of preparation.

The pandemic has exacerbated the demand for endoscopy, a procedure in which a camera attached to a flexible tube is inserted into the patient’s body. Cheshire and Merseyside has the highest rate of upper gastrointestinal endoscopies in England, while Lancashire and South Cumbria has the fourth highest.

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust trialled Cytosponge as part of a national project. It will now be trialled in a small number of GP surgeries or Community Diagnostic Centres in Lancashire.

In Merseyside, Cytosponge has been piloted at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. The service will now move to St Helens and Knowsley Community Diagnostic Centre.

Dr Neil Smith, Cancer Director at the Lancashire and South Cumbria Health and Care Partnership, said: “Identifying the 80-85 per cent of patients who don’t have cancerous symptoms means giving them peace of mind and avoiding unnecessary hospital visits. At the same time, we can make sure the 15-20 per cent of patients who should attend hospital for endoscopy are going onto much shorter waiting lists.”  

Dr Ash Bassi, Consultant Gastroenterologist at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and co-chair of the Cheshire and Merseyside endoscopy network, said: “The great strength of the Innovation Agency is that it can identify best practice in an area and then make sure it spreads across the healthcare system.”

Tony Bayliss, aged 80, from Eccleston in St Helens, has been treated at St Helens and Knowsley for more than a decade since he was diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus.

He was offered the Cytosponge test rather than an endoscopy for his latest check-up. “I prefer the sponge because it’s much quicker and it’s very simple. I had a bit of trepidation to start with but it was no bother at all in the end and I’d recommend it to anyone,” he said

Mike Kenny, Acting Co-Director of Enterprise and Growth at the Innovation Agency, said: “Endoscopy services are a priority in our region, and we’ve focused a lot of energies there. We were able to use our knowledge of the health and care system to make sure this fantastic innovation gained a foothold in primary care where it will have the greatest impact.”

Cytosponge has been developed by global healthcare technology company Medtronic and Cambridge diagnostics specialists Cyted.

Marcel Gehrung, CEO and co-founder at Cyted, said: “We are delighted to be expanding the use of the Cytosponge test to community settings in the North West of England with support from the SBRI. This will support the recovery of endoscopy waiting times in one of the regions under most demand across the country, helping patients access potentially life-saving cancer treatment sooner and relieving some stress and concern during a difficult time.”

SBRI (Small Business Research Initiative) Healthcare is a national award-winning scheme, offering development funding to innovators and entrepreneurs who have solutions to healthcare problems in the NHS. It is an NHS England and NHS Improvement initiative, supported by England’s 15 Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), which includes the Innovation Agency.