Deadly cancer of the gullet could be spotted eight years earlier with a new gene test, giving hope that thousands of deaths could be prevented each year.
Nearly 9,000 people are told they have oesophageal cancer in Britain annually, but the disease is often picked up at a late stage when it has already spread to other parts of the body, and nearly 90 per cent of patients will die within 10 years.
However scientists at Cambridge University have discovered that important genetic changes are occurring in people who go on to develop gullet cancer, and these can be spotted up to eight years early
The earlier cancer is detected the easier it is to treat and the better long-term prognosis.
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead researcher based at the University of Cambridge MRC Cancer Unit, said: “Many people with oesophageal cancer are diagnosed when their disease has already spread and is harder to treat.
“Testing for these new markers during regular checks could help identify people who have a high chance of developing oesophageal cancer.”
The oesophagus, or gullet is the muscular tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach.
To find out the changes in the body that could highlight the early presence of cancer in the gullet, scientists studied the oesophageal tissue from 90 patients suffering from Barrett’s oesophagus, a common condition in which cells lining the food pipe change shape.
Around one in 10 people who suffer from acid reflux will develop Barrett’s Oesophagus – around 260,000 adults – and around five per cent of those people will eventually develop cancer.
The team found predictive genetic markers in 94 per cent of the people who went on to develop gullet cancer, and the markers were present up to eight years before symptoms appeared.
Currently people with Barrett’s Oesophagus are given endoscopies every few years to check that their food pipe cells have not become cancerous. But, the new test could mean people with high risk genetic markers can be more closely monitored for early signs that cancer will develop, helping diagnose the disease earlier when treatment is more likely to be successful.
It would also means the majority of people who are at a low risk of developing oesophageal cancer could have far fewer endoscopies.
Professor Matt Seymour, the National Cancer Research Institute‘s clinical research director, said: “Survival for cancer of the gullet remains stubbornly low, and we face big challenges in diagnosing the disease earlier when it is more likely to be treated successfully.
“Studies like this not only mean we may be able to identify the disease earlier, but may also reveal more about the disease itself. It could be that, as well as helping predict who will develop the disease, these genetic markers could point the way to new treatments.”
It is estimated that around 90 per cent of cases of gullet cancer could be avoided if people made lifestyle changes such as giving up smoking, drinking less alcohol and cutting down on spicy and fatty foods.
The most common symptom of Barrett’s oesophagus is heartburn or indigestion, although sufferers can also experience nausea, vomiting and difficulty swallowing food.
Researchers now want to carry out clinical trials to find out if diagnosing oesophageal cancer sooner, and beginning treatment more quickly, could help patients to live longer.
The research is being presented at the National Cancer Research Institute’s (NCRI) cancer conference in Liverpool on Monday.