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Sarah Bohndiek and her team have developed a new type of endoscope for early diagnosis of oesophageal cancer.

last modified Mar 07, 2018 10:15 AM

Dr Sarah Bohndiek and her team, in collaboration with researchers at Addenbrookes and the MRC Cancer Unit, have developed a new type of endoscope using multispectral imaging which will be used to spot pre-cancerous cells in the oesophagus. The research received widespread coverage on the local, national and international BBC channels and also the Sunday Telegraph (4th March 2018).

It’s a technology normally seen in military style drones but now researchers in Cambridge are using it in the fight against cancer. Scientists at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre are working to reinvent the endoscope to make it easier to find cells that could become cancerous in the food pipe. The goal, to develop a camera that sees colours and textures not visible to the human eye. It would allow doctors to stop potentially pre-cancerous cells in their tracks, eliminating them before they could become cancerous. This new endoscope, which has been funded by Stand Up To Cancer, is expected to be tested for the very first time on a small group of patients in Addenbrooke’s in the Spring. For now it will be used for patients with a condition called Barrett’s Oesophagus, which can increase the risk of oesophageal cancer, and the researchers hope it has potential to be used more widely in the future.

Multispectral imaging is how some drones identify objects on the ground but in the Cavendish Lab in Cambridge, the technology is being used by physicists for a very different reason. Dr Sarah Bohndiek and her team are developing a new type of endoscope. This new imaging technology will identify colours not visible to the human eye, it will also show textures. The aim is to identify when abnormal cells could go on to become cancerous.

The technology will be used for people with Barrett's Oesophagus – a condition which increases the risk of getting cancer of the food pipe. People with Barrett’s already have abnormal cells in their oesophagus, these usually stay as they are and require no further treatment. However, in some cases, they can become even more abnormal over time and may even develop into cancer in the future. Patients need regular endoscopies to monitor their condition. This new technology is about prevention. Spotting the potentially pre-cancerous cells and treating people at the earliest possible stage means that these cells can’t become cancerous in the future.

Why is it so important to diagnose cancer early? When cancer is found earlier it tends to be easier to treat successfully. Statistics from Cancer Research UK show that the ten-year survival rate for eight different types of cancer combined is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one or two, compared with survival rates when diagnosed at stage three or four.

Sarah’s work is just one piece of this complicated puzzle. Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald is the other half of this high-flying double act. She not only runs a busy research lab in the MRC Cancer Unit, but is also a Consultant in Gastroenterology at Addenbrooke’s Hospital - treating patients with oesophageal cancer. Rebecca knows that changes are desperately needed. Nearly 9,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer each year and survival is poor because it is one of the most difficult cancers to catch early enough to cure – and that’s why preventing it in the first place is so important. Rebecca’s insights have been crucial in the development of the new endoscope.

At Addenbrooke’s they have updated the endoscopy clinic and this spring the unit is expected to begin the very first stage of testing of this new style endoscopy for patients with Barrett’s. The progress so far has only been possible because of the set up at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre. The charity funds researchers in the early detection task force who are physicists, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, pathologists, and clinicians. By working together they are identifying what patients need and bringing forward the day when all cancers can be cured.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, MRC Cancer Unit
Dr Massi Di Pietro, Addenbrooke’s Hospital and MRC Cancer Unit
Dr Sarah Bohndiek, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge