Guts UK funded researchers at University College London have discovered that a simple health questionnaire could be a highly effective tool to pre-screen people for early signs of oesophageal cancer, enabling much earlier diagnosis and treatment.
The research used artificial intelligence to analyse a large oesophageal cancer dataset of 1,299 patients to establish which health factors were common in those individuals who had Barrett’s oesophagus.
Barrett’s oesophagus is a condition where the cells of the oesophagus (gullet) grow abnormally and is usually caused by acid reflux. Barret’s oesophagus is not a cancer, but is the only known pre-cursor for oesophageal cancer, increasing the risk of cancer by 30 to 60 fold.
Each year, around 9,100 people in the UK are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and the long term survival rate for patients is only 12%, but 59% of cases are preventable. However there is currently no national screening programme, unlike breast, bowel and cervical cancer.
Significantly, AI found eight factors: age; gender; smoking; waist circumference; frequency of stomach pain; duration of heartburn; acid taste; and taking of acid suppression medicines, which were markers in those individuals who either had Barrett’s oesophagus or went onto develop it.
The risk factors identified by AI were then tested on a different oesophageal cancer dataset of 398 patients, and the conclusions were the same.
“Our evidence highlights a set of risk factors, which could act as an early warning sign for the likelihood of developing Barret’s oesophagus, and potentially oesophageal cancer.
“We propose developing a simple tick box questionnaire, identifying risks such as a large waist circumference, severe stomach pain and duration of heartburn, which could be filled out by a GP or by a patient using a mobile phone app.
“The results would identify a high risk group of people at an early stage, who could then go on to have clinical screening to diagnose and treat oesophageal cancer at a much earlier stage and significantly improve survival rates.” – Lead author, Professor Laurence Lovat (UCL Surgery & Interventional Science).