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7 February 2024

Members of the Heatherwood Hospital endoscopy team with the "sponge on a string" capsule

Frimley Health has become the first NHS trust in Surrey and Sussex to use an innovative new diagnostic test to detect diseases in the upper digestive system.

The ‘sponge on a string’ is a less invasive method of endoscopy which collects cells in the oesophagus (gullet or food pipe) and can help diagnose specific cancers earlier.

The capsule sponge test is a vitamin-sized capsule containing a small spherical sponge attached to a string. When swallowed, the capsule dissolves and the sponge expands within the stomach to collect cells from the oesophagus lining, before the sponge is retrieved using the string.

The whole procedure takes just seven and a half minutes with no additional recovery time needed. A traditional endoscopy, which involves passing a long, flexible tube equipped with a video camera down the throat, usually takes around 30 minutes and, as many patients choose to be sedated for the procedure, the average recovery time is around six hours.

The capsule sponge test can identify oesophageal cancer earlier and is used to monitor conditions such as Barrett’s oesophagus, which is where some cells in the oesophagus grow abnormally and can lead to oesophageal cancer. The condition affects around 1% of the UK population and patients diagnosed need repeat endoscopies to monitor the abnormal cells for any changes. Regular screening allows the cell changes to be identified and simple, curative treatment to be offered.

The first patients underwent the new procedure at the endoscopy department at Heatherwood Hospital in Ascot last week as part of the first phase of the programme. The plan is to roll out the service to all patients needing oesophageal investigation towards the end of 2024. Frimley Health carries out more than 11,000 upper endoscopy procedures every year and initially this project will save around 1,000 appointments which can then be offered to other patients.

Tricia Mullins from Ascot, Berkshire, said: “I get routine endoscopies every three years and this capsule sponge test was much better. It was slightly uncomfortable but the lovely nurse chatted to me throughout to distract me and it didn’t take long at all. I usually have sedation but this time I was back to normal straight away. What an innovative idea, I would highly recommend it.”

John Wheeler from Marlow said: “The capsule went down no problem. There is some discomfort when they take it out but It saves you so much time and there are no after-effects. I went to the pub straight after - within 15 minutes I was having a swift half!”

Gareth Roberts, chief of service for medicine at Frimley Health, said: “By offering the capsule sponge test as an alternative, many patients can safely avoid more invasive investigations and the traditional endoscopy can be prioritised for those with other conditions. This will undoubtedly have a significant impact on our diagnostic waiting lists, as the procedure is far quicker and can be carried out in clinic rooms which will enable us to diagnose more patients each day.

“Several studies have shown that the test is safe, well-tolerated and effective and I’m very proud that we’re leading the way for other trusts in the region by introducing this innovative procedure. It is testament to the hard work of our endoscopy teams and their forward-thinking approach to ensure patients can get timely access to the latest diagnostic methods.”