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Options for screening for colorectal cancer.

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  • 1Colorectal Cancer Unit, Cancer Research UK, St Mark's Hospital, Northwick Park, Harrow, UK.


Unlike other types of cancer, there are several options for screening for colorectal cancer (CRC). The most extensively examined method, faecal occult blood testing (FOBT), has been shown, in three large randomized trials, to reduce mortality from CRC by up to 20% if offered biennally and possibly more if offered every year. Recently published data from the US trial suggest that CRC incidence rates are also reduced by up to 20%, but only after 18 years. In this study, the number of positive slides was associated with the positive predictive value both for CRC and adenomas larger than 1 cm, suggesting that the reduction in CRC incidence was caused by the identification and removal of large adenomas. In this respect, this study supports the concept that removing adenomas prevents CRC. More efficient methods of detecting adenomas include the use of colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy (FS). Considerable evidence exists from case-control and uncontrolled cohort studies to suggest that endoscopic screening by sigmoidoscopy reduces incidence of distal colorectal cancer. However, in the absence of evidence from a randomized trial, several countries have been reluctant to introduce endoscopic screening. Three trialsare currently in progress (in the UK, Italy and the US) to address this issue. Two of these trials are examining the hypothesis that a single FS screen at around age 55-64 might be a cost-effective and acceptable method for reducing CRC incidence rates. Recruitment and screening are now complete in both studies and the first analysis of results on incidence rates is expected in 2004. Colonoscopy screening at 10-year intervals has recently been endorsed in the US on the basis that the reductions in incidence observed with distal CRC screening can be extrapolated to the proximal colon. However, data are lacking and a pilot study for a trial of the acceptability and efficacy of colonoscopy screening is in progress in the US. It has also been suggested that FOBT testing should be used to detect proximal CRC missed by sigmoidoscopy screening, but the small amount of published data suggest that supplementing FS with FOBT offers very little advantage over FS alone. Other forms of CRC screening are under investigation and represent exciting options for the future. Extraction of DNA from stool is now feasible and a number of research groups have shown high sensitivity for CRC using a panel of DNA markers including mutations in k-ras, APC, p53 and BAT26. Data so far indicate that, with the exception of k-ras, these markers are highly specific and therefore represent a significant improvement over FOBT. Whether these tests will replace or supplement existing methods of screening has yet to be determined. It has been suggested that BAT26, which is a marker of microsatellite instability, a feature of proximal sporadic CRC, might be a useful adjunct to sigmoidoscopy screening. Others have suggested that a test for occult blood should be included with the DNA markers to further increase sensitivity. It is not yet known how sensitive these markers are for adenomas--it is only by detecting adenomas that CRC incidence rates can be reduced. A final exciting new option for screening is virtual colonoscopy (VC), which by screening out people without neoplasia allows colonoscopy to be reserved for patients requiring a therapeutic intervention. The sensitivity of VC for large adenomas and CRC appears to be high, although results vary by centre and there is a steep learning curve. Sensitivity for small adenomas is low, but perhaps it is less essential to find such lesions. Some groups have suggested that virtual colonoscopy might be a useful option for investigating patients who test positive with stool-based screening tests. Whichever CRC screening method is finally chosen (and there is no reason why several methods should not ultimately be available), high quality endoscopy resources will always be required to investigate and treat neoplastic lesions detected.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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