You Can Swallow This Camera And It'll Check Your Body For Cancer

The NHS is trialling 'Pill Cams', which take photos and provide a diagnosis within hours.
Pill Cam
Pill Cam

In what sounds like something straight out of a sci-fi film, some NHS patients will soon be able to swallow a pill with a tiny camera inside to get checked for cancer and other conditions like Crohn’s disease.

‘Pill Cams’ are being trialled across the NHS, with an initial group of 11,000 patients in England receiving the capsule cameras in more than 40 parts of the country.

Known as a colon capsule endoscopy, the cameras will enable patients to access cancer checks at home. The imaging technology can provide information and photos within a matter of hours.

Traditionally with endoscopies, patients need to attend hospital and have a tube inserted, often through their mouth. In the pandemic, however, infection control measures required to make endoscopies ‘Covid secure’ mean they take much longer to do, which has reduced the number of people undergoing checks.

But with this new technology, people can go about their normal day while the camera works through their system.

How do they work?

The capsule cams usually takes five to eight hours to do a check after being swallowed. The camera provides full images of the bowel and information is sent to a data recorder, so patients can go about life as normal.

The NHS doesn’t ask for the cameras back either. The capsule will eventually evacuate the body in a bowel movement and can be flushed away, the NHS told HuffPost UK. The hope is that the cameras will speed up checks, catching cancers earlier when they are easier to treat.

Since the first lockdown, the number of people diagnosed with bowel cancer in England has fallen sharply, a study led by the University of Oxford found. Between April and October 2020, 3,500 fewer patients than expected were diagnosed with bowel cancer in England. Since the disease is more likely to be curable if it’s detected at an early stage, these results suggest that many patients may die unnecessarily, researchers said.

At University College London Hospitals (UCLH), the endoscopy team have already started using the camera capsules on patients. Clinical lead Ed Seward said: “Not only does colon capsule increase our diagnostic capacity, because it doesn’t require the resources of a dedicated hospital space, it also allows us to do the examination in the patient’s home, so patients who may be shielding or cautious about going to a hospital, can perform the procedure [at home].”

What are experts saying about them?

The trial has been welcomed by bowel health groups and charities. Dr Alastair McKinlay, president of The British Society of Gastroenterology, said the technology sounds “promising”, but added that it will need to be properly evaluated before being rolled out.

Genevieve Edwards, chief executive at Bowel Cancer UK, said it has the potential to “make a huge difference” for people with bowel cancer symptoms and could help the NHS prioritise those who urgently need further tests.

Professor Peter Johnson, NHS clinical director for cancer, urged anyone experiencing cancer symptoms to not delay in seeking help. “Help us to help you by coming forward for care – the NHS is ready and able to treat you,” he said.