THE York doctor behind a new ‘camera in a capsule’ project to improve bowel cancer diagnosis across the UK has spoken about how it could help save lives.

Professor James Turvill, consultant gastroenterologist at York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, is part of a £3 million national research project trialling the new technology.

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As The Press reported on Thursday, York and Scarborough Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been awarded the money to lead national research into a device that could improve the clinical pathway for diagnosis of bowel cancer.

York Press: Work is being carried out at York HospitalWork is being carried out at York Hospital (Image: Newsquest)

"Bowel disease is a difficult area, an uncomfortable area and one of the reasons people don't come forward is they don't like the idea of a colonoscopy," said Prof Turvill.

"The camera in a capsule might allow people to be investigated and diagnosed in a much less traumatic way.

"If it can be done in your own home and without being painful it will alter the mindset.

"If you can diagnose bowel cancer early it is almost always cured, but if it goes undetected it becomes more difficult to deal with and the current method of detection, colonoscopy, is an expensive test which requires patients to come into hospital and requires a lot of training to deliver."

The tablets are about 3cm by 1cm - the size of a large vitamin tablet - and can be swallowed with water and once ingested it travels through the stomach and small intestine to the large bowel and takes multiple photographs of the inner lining of the bowel.

York Press: Professor James Turvill with one of the capsulesProfessor James Turvill with one of the capsules (Image: Supplied)

The images are sent to a recorder that the patient wears which is then downloaded. This provides consultants with a minimally invasive, remotely accessible, and innovative tool to diagnose bowel cancer, colitis, and pre-malignant polyps. Eventually, the capsule passes naturally out of the body within the stool. It's consistent parts are biodegradable and work is currently underway to access the full environmental impact.

If the ColoCap study is successful, the colon capsule endoscopy could rapidly increase the capacity for diagnosing bowel cancer and other bowel diseases and so reduce waiting times. It is also hoped that the technology will increase patient satisfaction since it rarely causes pain and for some end the requirement to travel long distances for a colonoscopy. Instead, patients could swallow the capsule in a GP surgery or the comfort of their own homes.

Made by Medtronic in America, the colon capsules cost about £727 each compared with £746 for a diagnostic colonoscopy, and, should everything go to plan, it is hoped costs would come down over time.

Professor Turvill started working for the trust in 2000 and said: “It has taken 15 years to get to this stage and it is a real privilege to think that I am working on a project that may change the way bowel cancer is diagnosed in future, both in the UK and internationally. 

"The UK is now at the forefront of this colon camera technology. It has been around for a number of years and in other countries too, but it has largely been used in research settings.

"Before Covid came along very few colon cameras were being used in England, but when Covid struck, it became very difficult to perform colonoscopy and so the NHS had to find an alternative.

"Adversity is the mother of invention and NHS England were farsighted on this.”

The Trust is working in partnership with leading academics in Scotland and Wales as part of the study, which is the largest evaluation of its kind nationally and will involve about 30 sites across the UK.  Staff from York will be working with the University of Aberdeen, Centre for Healthcare Randomised Trials (CHaRT) and Cardiff University Centre for Trials Research, colleagues at The University of York and the York Health Economics Consortium.

Work around recruiting about 1,000 patients from across the UK onto the trial will start in April. The results will be made public in 2026-2027.