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Pill-sized ‘swallowable cameras’ are latest weapon in NHS war on cancer

12:00am | & Health

In a medical advance that seems straight from the pages of science fiction, patients can now swallow a miniature camera to check for suspected colon cancer.

The miniature cameras – no bigger than a pill – are now being trialled across the NHS and can provide a diagnosis within hours. They are the latest NHS innovation to help patients access a range of cancer checks at home.

Currently, a patient with suspected colorectal cancer needs to attend hospital for a traditional endoscopy, during which a tube with a camera is inserted into the body. While relatively painless, some patients find the procedure embarrassing and upsetting. It has also been more difficult to carry out during the coronavirus pandemic due to increased infection control measures in hospitals.

The new ‘swallowable camera’ technology – known as a ‘colon capsule endoscopy’ – means people can swallow the pill-size camera then go about their normal day, without the need to be in hospital. An initial trial group of 11,000 NHS patients in England will receive the capsule cameras in more than 40 parts of the country.

The NHS prioritised cancer care during the coronavirus pandemic and latest figures show that hospitals carried out more than two cancer treatments for every patient they treated for COVID-19. The early months of the pandemic showed a marked dip in the number of people coming forward for cancer checks, due to the fear of contracting coronavirus.

It prompted a national awareness campaign, urging people not to ignore possible signs of cancer, which seems to have worked. Figures for December 2020 showed more than 200,000 people came forward for cancer checks, which was 13,000 more than during the same month the previous year.

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 miniature cameras pass through your body, they take two pictures per second checking for signs of cancer and other conditions like Crohn’s disease.”

How the miniature cameras work

The patient is given the tiny camera and swallows it just like swallowing a pill. The camera takes from five to eight hours to pass through the patient’s body, constantly gathering images and data throughout its journey. It is ejected through a normal bowel movement.

There is no need to retrieve the single-use camera because all the images and data it collects during its journey are ‘beamed’ to a data recorder which the patient wears on their body throughout the procedure. The date recorder is then handed in and the information it contains is clinically analysed to give a fast diagnosis.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer, said: “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.

“The NHS message to anyone experiencing symptoms is clear – do not delay, help us to help you by coming forward for care – the NHS is ready and able to treat you.”

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