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New 'Sponge on String' Method May Replaced Endoscopy to Detect Cancer amid Covid Scare

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The University College London Hospital is now the first in the world to use “sponge on a string” to diagnose oesophageal cancer in a COVID-safe way.

COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things about our lives, from day-to-day chores to medical treatments. Contact-based procedures that were once instrumental in diagnosing and treating disease are now deemed unfit in light of the virus. But, one British Hospital is adopting a technique that has been in clinical trials for nearly five years to eliminate one of the most invasive procedures like endoscopy. The University College London Hospital is now the first in the world to use “sponge on a string” to diagnose oesophageal cancer in a COVID-safe way.

The process was first successfully tried in 2016 in lab conditions and later carried out in clinical trials by the University of Cambridge. This process uses an object called the Cytosponge, which is a ‘sponge on a string’ that can detect Barrett’s oesophagus. The condition is present in most pre-cancerous patients.

The string test allows diagnosticians to extract cell samples from the food pipe without the need for an endoscopy, biopsy or sedation. The method comes in handy as the use of endoscopy was suspended because of the pandemic (a long tubular device with a camera and light at the end which is inserted into the oral and gastrointestinal cavities).

Instead, they can use cytosponge, a multivitamin tablet-sized object which the patient can swallow relatively easily. There is no need for a sterilised room and specialised equipment like the ones needed in an endoscopy. All that a patient needs is a glass of water and a string, to which the cytospin is attached. Once inside, the pill takes 8-10 minutes to dissolve in the stomach after which the sponge is released. A nurse can gently pull the string to retrieve the sponge. As it is removed, the sponge picks up cells from the lining of the oesophageal wall with 365-degree coverage.

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National Health Service of England and Scotland are planning to make this service available nationwide in the latter half of 2021.

People with Barrett’s Oesophagus are invited for surveillance every year or after a 5-year break. The condition can develop into cancer and screening is the only way to keep the developments in check as it can be treated if detected at stage 1 but after that, the survival rate drops to 20%.