Fluorescent spray that can catch throat cancer early offers hope to 8,000 Britons diagnosed each year

A throat spray has been developed to spot cancer of the oesophagus at an early stage.

The disease, which killed Morse star John Thaw, is one of the most deadly cancers because it is often missed or wrongly diagnosed until too late.

Current methods used to detect it can be inaccurate, so many patients are given unnecessary invasive treatment including removal of their oesophagus, the ‘food pipe’ that connects the throat to the stomach.

Early detection key: If caught early, the cancerous cells can be zapped with an electric current which kills them without surgery

Early detection key: If caught early, the cancerous cells can be zapped with an electric current which kills them without surgery

Now scientists have developed a fluorescent dye spray which sticks to healthy cells in the oesophagus but cannot attach itself to cancer cells or those in the early stages of turning cancerous. This gives a clear signpost to where the disease is developing.

If caught at this stage, the cancer cells can be ‘zapped’ with an electric current which kills them without surgery.

The treatment offers hope to more than 8,000 Britons a year who are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

One of the patients in the study had
their entire oesophagus removed because a small pre-cancerous area had
been identified – which using the dye was found to have been very small
and could have been treated without surgery.

Deadly: Oesophageal cancer is one of the most fatal because it is often missed or wrongly diagnosed until it is too late

Deadly: Oesophageal cancer is one of the most fatal because it is often missed or wrongly diagnosed until it is too late

Two patients whose cancer had not shown up using the current imaging
methods – which usually only detect when a tumour has formed – were
found to have clear areas which needed treatment.

Lead researcher Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, of the Medical Research
Council’s Cancer Cell Unit in Cambridge said: ‘Current methods to screen
for oesophageal cancer are controversial – they are costly,
uncomfortable for the patient and are not completely accurate.

‘Our technique highlights the exact position of a developing oesophageal
cancer, and how advanced it is, giving a more accurate picture.

‘This could spare patients radical surgery to remove the oesophagus that
can result in having to eat much smaller more regular meals and worse
acid-reflux.’

Cases of the disease have doubled over the past 25 years particularly in
men, thought to be linked to alcohol and smoking. Only 1 in 12 people
survive for five years after diagnosis.

The researchers, funded by Cancer Research UK, tested the treatment on
80 biopsies from people with Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition which
increases the risk of oesophageal cancer, as well as four patients with
cancer.

They say the dye is ‘relatively cheap’ and unlikely to cause side
effects as it uses a type of wheat germ protein found in our normal
diet.

This binds to glycans, sugar molecules on the surface of cells inside
the oesophagus and they added a flourescent tag to make it glow green
under light of a specific wavelength.

It can then be seen using an endoscope – an optical tube passed down the oesophagus.

When diseased, the glycans’ structure changes – and current imaging methods cannot pick up these tiny changes.

The test needs to be trialled on newly diagnosed patients but the
researchers, whose study is published today (Mon) in the journal Nature
Medicine, believe it could be used routinely on patients within five
years.

A UK trial is already being planned.

Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research
UK, said: ‘Oesophageal cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to
detect and treat.

‘We urgently need new ways to detect the cancer earlier, and this dye
offers a great opportunity to treat the cancer more promptly and more
successfully, potentially saving many lives a year.’