March 5 - Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston have developed a device they say will revolutionize the way doctors screen for esophageal cancer. The pill-sized scanner uses lasers to generate a 3D model of the esophagus with microscopic resolution, giving doctors the ability to check for pre-cancerous conditions without the need of a biopsy. Ben Gruber has more.
Will Baker is swallowing a pill, but he isn't taking medication. The pill is actually a tiny scanner that will allow his doctor to check his esophagus for signs of cancer. Baker was diagnosed with Barrett's Syndrome in 1996. It's a condition where the lining of the esophagus is replaced by cells normally found in the gastrointestinal tract. The danger with Barrett's is its potential to develop into a deadly form of cancer called esophageal endocarcinoma. Two minutes after swallowing the pill, the doctor pulls it back out using a tether. (SOUNDBITE) (English) WILL BAKER, PATIENT, SAYING: "I think it is a major breakthrough. I think it reduces the fear for people who have heard about the, I guess they call it, the 'garden hose'." The 'garden hose' is a thick fiber optic scope used during an endoscopy - the procedure normally used for screening patients with Barrett's. In that procedure, a patient is sedated while a doctor uses the scope to search for abnormal cell growth. If abnormalities are found the doctor then cuts a tissue sample for a biopsy. But, developer Dr Gary Tearney says the new method provides a far better view, in a less invasive manner. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. GARY TEARNEY, MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL, SAYING: "With our procedure, instead you swallow a capsule. And that capsule captures these microscopic images while you are in the living person. Without taking the tissue out. Not only that but it gathers the microscopic images of the entire esophagus, not just one little spot. So we get a much better understanding and a much better picture of the detailed structure of the esophagus and we are able to get a much better diagnoses." The pill scanner works by gathering imagery using optical coherence tomography, where a spinning laser beams light into tissue to generate a three dimensional picture in microscopic detail. (SOUNDBITE) (English) DR. GARY TEARNEY, MASSACHUSETTS GENERAL HOSPITAL, SAYING: "We scan the beam around the esophagus and with these depth-resolved reflectance profiles we are able to get a cross sectional image of the entire esophagus as it constricts around the capsule. And then as the capsule is swallowed and it goes down through the GI tract we compile these cross sectional images to create a three dimensional image of the esophagus." Approximately two million people suffer from Barrett's Syndrome in the United States. Dr. Tearney believes that many more have the condition but have not been diagnosed. Will Baker believes the ease of the new procedure will persuade more people to opt for testing. (SOUNDBITE) (English) WILL BAKER, PATIENT, SAYING: "I think more people are afraid of the other scope, because I have encouraged them to come in with their heartburn and they have just backed off. Whereas this procedure they would do it without hesitation knowing that knowing that they are not being put under and knowing that it only takes a short period of time and there is very little discomfort if any." Dr. Tearney says that similar scanning devices could eventually be used elsewhere in the body - making cancer check-ups less invasive and saving lives in the process.