Game-changing sponge detects deadly cancer

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Anyone from babies to seniors can suffer from Gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, a chronic condition that causes acid reflux and heartburn. But did you know that GERD can be an early sign of cancer?

This year, 20,000 people will be told they have esophageal cancer. But a new way to detect the beginnings of it can be done in just minutes at your doctor's office.

David Brown is one of the first people in the United States to try out a new test to detect a very dangerous cancer, one that claimed his dad's life.

"Throughout my childhood, he would be running to the restroom and vomiting," Brown recalled. "He became jaundice. That was due to liver metastasis, you know, from the esophageal cancer."

Brown already struggles with severe heartburn.

"I just a really bad stomachache that went on for days," he said.

"A lot of people live with reflux, live with Barrett's esophagus, live with a soft shield cancer, and they just don't know it," interventional gastroenterologist Dr. Jason Samarasena said.

Until now, the only way to detect esophageal cancer would be with an endoscopy, where patients are sedated, a flexible camera is fed through the mouth, down to the stomach, taking four to five hours out of the patient's day.

The new Cytosponge takes just seven minutes — without sedation. The capsule, the size of a multivitamin, is connected to a string. The patient swallows the capsule, the outer coating dissolves in their stomach, releasing an expandable sponge. The doctor then pulls the string.

"As we're pulling on the string, the sponges touching the esophageal tissue and collecting cells, and it collects about 500,000 cells throughout the esophagus," Samarasena said.

The cells are then analyzed for any signs of cancer.

"I really do think this is a game changer for this disease," Samarasena said.

Not all esophageal cancers can be prevented, but the risk of developing this disease can be greatly reduced by avoiding certain risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol.

Obesity has been linked with esophageal cancer, and getting treated for reflux or Barrett's esophagus is crucial to avoid getting cancer.

REPORT: MB #4677

BACKGROUND: Esophageal cancer occurs in the long, hollow tube that runs from your throat to your stomach. The esophagus normally helps move the food you swallow from the back of your throat to your stomach to then be digested. Esophageal cancer begins in the cells within the lining inside the esophagus. More men than women get esophageal cancer, and it is the sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide. In some regions, higher rates of this form of cancer may be attributed to alcohol and tobacco use, or nutritional habits and obesity. Signs and symptoms include weight loss, chest pain or pressure, worsening indigestion or heartburn, coughing, difficulty swallowing or hoarseness. If you've been diagnosed with Barrett's esophagus, it is a precancerous condition that increases your risk of esophageal cancer caused by acid reflux, be sure to ask your doctor what symptoms and signs to be on the lookout for that may signal your condition is getting worse. (Source:

DIAGNOSING: Screening isn't done routinely, except in patients with Barrett's esophagus. It's not clear what causes esophageal cancer, but it occurs when cells develop mutations causing them to grow and divide out of control. In addition to a physical exam, other tests used to diagnose esophageal cancer may include a barium swallow or esophagram which involves swallowing liquid and then X-rays are taken. An upper endoscopy will be required, which allows the doctor to see the lining of the esophagus. The patient is sedated, and a flexible tube with a light and video camera is passed down the throat into the esophagus. If there is an abnormal area, a biopsy is then performed to find out if it is cancerous. An endoscopic ultrasound may be required, or a bronchoscopy. A CAT scan or MRI may be recommended, or a PET scan. (Source:

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Now, instead of taking a full day off for an upper endoscopy, a patient can be tested using a new concept called the Cytosponge. Taking just 7 minutes, without sedation, it is a cell collection device. A minimally invasive method, the patient simply swallows this capsule which releases a small spherical sponge attached to a retainer card by a silicone braided polyester suture. Once the capsule dissolves, the sponge expands and collects samples of the surface esophageal cells and then is retrieved from the stomach using the suture. This device is a cutting-edge development in the esophageal cancer screening process. (Source: Dr. Samarasena)