Thousands of NHS patients are to be given a camera which is small enough to swallow to help check if they have cancer.


The health service in England is trialling the use of miniature cameras – which are the size of a pill – as a diagnostic tool for bowel cancer and other gastrointestinal problems.

The technology – a colon capsule endoscopy – can provide a diagnosis in hours and patients can be being examined 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 will allow more people to get cancer tests quickly and safely.

The capsule cameras will be trialled in 11,000 patients at 40 different sites across England.

Traditional endoscopies mean patients need to attend hospital and have a tube inserted in the mouth or anus, whereas the new technology means that people can go about their normal day. Infection control procedures due to COVID-19 mean at present fewer traditional endoscopies are being carried out, but the new technology means that the tests can be sped up and conducted in the comfort of a patient’s home.

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The camera takes two photos per second and takes pictures of the bowel as it passes through. It can help spot conditions including bowel cancer and Crohn’s disease. 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.

NHS England said that in December the number of people who came forward for cancer checks surpassed the previous year and that 25,000 patients received cancer treatment. Nonetheless, there have been concerns about people not seeking help during the pandemic. Anyone with any worrying symptoms has been urged to come forward and seek help.

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“As we come out of ‘peak COVID’ and the disruption of the pandemic, the NHS is now pushing ahead with genuine innovation to expand services for many other conditions," said Sir Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England. “That’s why we’re now trialling these ingenious capsule cameras to allow more people to undergo cancer investigations quickly and safely.

“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.”

The Pillcam © NHS England/PA
The Pillcam © NHS England/PA

Professor Peter Johnson, clinical director for cancer for the NHS in England, added: “From the cutting edge 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 more than 25,000 people treated for cancer in December and more than 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 to help you by coming forward for care – the NHS is ready and able to treat you.”

Reader Q&A: How does radiation kill cancer if it causes cancer?

Asked by: Odysseus Ray Lopez, US

It’s rather like the way guns can be used to commit crime, or stop it. Radiation causes cancer because its high-energy photons can cause breaks in the DNA strands in your cells. Cells can repair this damage up to a point, but sometimes the repair isn’t perfect and leaves some genes defective.

If the break affects one of the many tumour-suppressing genes in your DNA, that cell can become cancerous. But cancer cells are also more vulnerable to radiation than ordinary cells. Part of what makes them cancer cells is their ability to divide rapidly and this normally means that some of the DNA ‘spellcheck’ mechanisms are turned off.

So when a cancer cell suffers a break in a DNA strand, it’s less likely to repair it correctly. Depending where the break occurs, it might either kill the cell outright, or make it reproduce more slowly.

Radiation therapy uses a focused beam that is aimed at just the part of the body with the tumour, and the dose is carefully calculated to cause the minimum collateral damage to healthy cells. Even so, radiation therapy does very slightly increase your chances of developing a second cancer.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.