GPs could be screening for oesophageal cancer using a simple 'sponge on a string' test in as little as five years.
Oesophageal cancer is one of the fastest rising cancers in the UK, killing over 6,000 people each year, yet survival rates are among the poorest because the cancer is often detected only at an advanced stage.
The latest report from England's CMO Sir Liam Donaldson highlighted the rise in oesophageal cancer as a major health concern.
But now a test has been developed that could help detect the cancer at an early stage.
Lead researcher Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, from the department of oncology at the University of Cambridge, told GP: 'Currently, it is not possible to screen for oesophageal cancer using endoscopy, but this test could be used for screening. It would be offered to patients presenting with heartburn and would be performed in general practice by the GPs.'
The test works by detecting a risk factor for oesophageal cancer called Barrett's oesophagus.
The patient swallows a pill which is attached to a string. The pill expands in the stomach to form a sponge in around three to five minutes.
The sponge is then removed from the mouth, bringing up a sample of stomach cells attached to the sponge for analysis.
The test has been approved by the MHRA and has already been trialled on several hundred people, said Dr Fitzgerald.
Eighty per cent of patients said they preferred the test to endoscopy and the majority would like the test to be performed at a GP surgery, she added.
'We are now recruiting for a trial of 500 patients in GP surgeries around East Anglia. After that we will submit the test for approval by NICE.'
Dr Fitzgerald said it was likely to be approved by NICE because it costs just £30 a test, a price which will decrease if it becomes mass produced, compared with £400 for endoscopy.
'The test could be rolled out across the country in the next five years,' she said.