Sci-fi to reality: NHS trials new capsule camera to detect cancers

Sci-fi to reality: NHS trials new capsule camera to detect cancers
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Miniature cameras which patients can swallow to get checked for cancer are being trialled across England by the National Health Service (NHS).

The imaging technology, in a capsule no bigger than a pill, can provide a diagnosis within hours. Known as a "colon capsule endoscopy", the cameras are expected to help speed up the checks, catching more cancers early when they are easier to treat.

NHS Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens said: “As we come out of ‘peak Covid’ and the disruption of the pandemic, the NHS is now pushing ahead with genuine innovation to expand services for many other conditions.

“That’s why we’re now trialling these ingenious capsule cameras to allow more people to undergo cancer investigations quickly and safely. What sounds like sci-fi is now becoming a reality, and as these minute cameras pass through your body, they take two pictures per second checking for signs of cancer and other conditions like Crohn’s disease.”

Cancer care

Traditional endoscopies mean patients need to attend hospital and have a tube inserted whereas the new technology means that people can go about their normal day. An initial group of 11,000 NHS patients in England will receive the capsule cameras in more than 40 parts of the country.

“As the NHS continues to prioritise cancer care, this latest innovation will ensure people can get the checks they need and conveniently – the cameras are small but they will make a big difference for patients,” said Dame Cally Palmer, NHS national cancer director.

The latest NHS figures show that hospitals carried out more than two cancer treatments for every patient they treated for Covid-19. In December alone, more than 25,000 patients were treated for cancer and more than 200,000 people came forward for checks – 13,000 more than the same month the previous year.

Cutting-edge tech

“From the cutting-edge technology of these colon capsules to Covid protected hubs and chemo home deliveries, the NHS has fast tracked new ways of treating and diagnosing cancer – all while responding to the coronavirus pandemic,” said Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer.

Infection control measures required to make endoscopies Covid-secure mean they take much longer to do, which has reduced the number of people who can undergo the life-saving checks.

The capsule endoscopy normally takes five to eight hours and provides full images of the bowel with information sent to a data recorder in a shoulder bag, so patients can go about their day.

The NHS said its Long Term Plan is committed to increasing the number of tumours caught at an early stage from half to three in four.

Diagnostic tool

At University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation trust (UCLH), the endoscopy team have already started using the innovative diagnostic tool.

“Colon capsule is a new innovation that has recently become available and involves swallowing a camera pill that takes pictures of the bowel as it passes through. These pictures are beamed to a recording device that the patient wears at their waist,” said clinical lead Ed Seward.

“Not only does colon capsule increase our diagnostic capacity, because it doesn’t require the resources of a dedicated hospital space to do the examination, it also allows us to do the examination in the patient’s home, so patients who may be shielding or cautious about going to a hospital, can perform the procedure in the comfort of their own homes,” he said.

Dr Alastair McKinlay, President of The British Society of Gastroenterology, said: “Colon capsule is a promising new technology that may offer a real advantage for some patients. For this reason, we welcome the opportunity for a proper service evaluation so that both the limitations and advantages of this technique can be properly assessed.

“We welcome NHS England’s decision to work with some of the UK’s top experts in this field to make sure that the technology has a proper evaluation.”

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