Publish date: 12 May 2022

Cytosponge St Helens Hospital-090222-011.jpgA potentially life-saving ‘sponge on a string’ test is set to improve cancer diagnosis in Cheshire and Merseyside.

The device, known as Cytosponge, will help to identify patients at most risk of oesophageal cancer – cancer of the gullet – and ease pressure on hospital endoscopy services.

Cytosponge has already been used successfully as part of the endoscopy services at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and the Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

Now it will be available closer to patients’ homes at the St Helens and Knowsley Community Diagnostic Centre, thanks to the support of the Innovation Agency.

The Innovation Agency is an NHS organisation that supports the adoption and spread of health and care innovations in Cheshire, Merseyside, Lancashire and South Cumbria.

It helped secure £500,000 from the SBRI Healthcare fund to spread Cytosponge from secondary services into the community.

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 – 47,800 in 2019-20, which is 45 per cent above the national average.

At St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, the level of demand is one of the highest in Cheshire and Merseyside.

The Cytosponge test aims to divert patients away from secondary care. It is administered in an outpatient setting and involves the patient swallowing a capsule attached to a ‘string’. The capsule dissolves in the oesophagus after a few minutes to release a sponge that gathers millions of cells for analysis as it is pulled out. 

The test will be offered to patients on endoscopy waiting lists. It 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.

Dr Ash Bassi, Consultant Gastroenterologist at St Helens and Knowsley Teaching Hospitals and co-chair of the Cheshire and Merseyside endoscopy network, said: “Pressures on endoscopy services have been extreme. This has meant that we need more alternatives to endoscopy.

“Cytosponge is a new medical test that aims to improve early detection and surveillance of the condition Barrett’s oesophagus. It is a quick, safe and accurate test that can be performed in the outpatient setting. It is more comfortable and convenient for patients.

“This will free up capacity in services like ours to do more endoscopies for patients who need them most. The Cytosponge test is meant for patients who have had gastroesophageal reflux disease (GORD) symptoms for several years.

“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.”

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