A patient swallows a tiny Pillcam camera

Pill-sized camera could help detect bowel cancer

Image credit: Alamy Stock Photo

The NHS plans to give thousands of patients a camera small enough to swallow to help detect if they have cancer.

The health service in England is trialling the use of miniature cameras, approximately the size of a regular pill, as a diagnostic tool for bowel cancer and other gastrointestinal problems, such as Crohn’s disease.

Known as colon capsule endoscopy, the NHS said the technology can provide a diagnosis in hours. Experts can also examine patients while they go about their daily lives, saving the need for an invasive diagnostic test in hospital.

The head of the NHS said that the “ingenious” cameras, which will be trialled in 11,000 patients at 40 different sites across England, will allow more people to get cancer tests quickly and safely.

Traditional endoscopies mean patients need to attend hospital and have a tube inserted, whereas the novel technology means that people can go about their normal day. Furthermore, current coronavirus infection control procedures also mean that, at present, fewer traditional endoscopies are being carried out. Therefore, tests can be sped up and conducted in the comfort of a patient’s home.

The camera takes two photos per second and takes pictures of the bowel as it passes through. The tool provides full images of the bowel with information sent to a data recorder in a shoulder bag. The whole process takes between five and eight hours.

The miniature camera, shown for size reference next to a pen.

The miniature camera, shown for size reference next to a pen.

Image credit: PA Media/NHS England

The technology comes after Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the health service in England, told MPs that cancer was a top operational priority for the NHS. “Clearly there’s going to be a lot more to do in the cancer programme during the course of the coming year and that is going to be one of the top operational priorities of the health service,” he told the House of Commons Health Committee on Tuesday (9 March). 

NHS England said that in December last year the number of people who came forward for cancer checks surpassed the previous year and that 25,000 patients received cancer treatment. However, there have been concerns about people not seeking help during the pandemic.

“That’s why we’re now trialling these ingenious capsule cameras to allow more people to undergo cancer investigations quickly and safely,” Stevens said. “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.”

Professor Peter Johnson, clinical director for cancer for the NHS in England, added: “From the groundbreaking 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.

“Endoscopy services continue and thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, cancer treatment and referrals have come back to usual levels, with over 25,000 people treated for cancer in December and over 200,000 coming forward for checks – 13,000 more than the previous year.

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

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