A “breakthrough” five-minute screening test for bowel cancer could save thousands of lives and prevent the disease from developing in the first place, sparking calls for its inclusion in the UK’s current screening programme.

With support from Cancer Research UK, Professor Wendy Atkin from Imperial College London has been assessing the potential of flexible sigmoidoscopy, more commonly known as Flexi-Scope, for the last 16 years.

Findings from the research, published in The Lancet, show that a one-off Flexi-Scope test - essentially a tube with a camera and light on the end that enables doctors to look for cancers in the bowel - not only cut the death rate by 43%, but, crucially, also slashed people’s chances of developing the disease by a third.

These results indicate that the screening method is much more effective than the current standard - the faecal occult blood test - which is known to reduce mortality from bowel cancer by 25% and has not been shown to diminish the risk of developing the disease.

Understandably, the medical community is excited by the potential of Flexi-Scope. Harpal Kumar, CR UK’s chief executive, hailed it as “one of the most important developments in cancer research for years”, and deeming it a “rare breakthrough” the charity said “thousands of people could be saved from developing bowel cancer because of this test and thousands more could be diagnosed early when treatment is most effective”.

As with all forms of cancer, early detection of bowel cancer is critical to securing the best treatment outcomes; in fact, more than 90% of patients will survive the disease for more than five years if it is diagnosed in the earliest stages, CR UK notes.

Despite declining death rates from the disease - which dropped 47% for women and by 35% for men between 1971 and 2008 - bowel cancer remains the third most common cancer in the UK and still claims around 16,000 lives every year, illustrating the need for more effective prevention and treatment strategies.

3,000 lives saved?
Conservative estimates by Prof Atkin claim that the one-off screen test could prevent at least 5,000 people getting bowel cancer and at least 3,000 people from dying from the disease, comparing favourably even to the much applauded NHS Breast Screening Programme, which is estimated to save 1,400 lives a year in England.

According to CR UK, the Flexi-Scope test could also be very cost-effective, particularly as it only needs to be conducted once in 11 years and treating cancers in the early stages is cheaper than fighting advanced cases. Furthermore, a study conducted back in 2006 for the Department of Health indicate that a Flexi-Scope screening programme would save £28 per person screened, it said.

And because of its great promise, the charity says it is calling on the government to include the Flexi-Scope as part of the national screening programme for bowel cancer alongside the FOBT.