Professor Ian Tomlinson

A leading University of Birmingham scientist has been awarded a £500,000 grant from Cancer Research UK to investigate whether a new blood-based screening test could detect bowel cancer earlier.

Professor Ian Tomlinson, Director of the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, has teamed up with colleagues in the UK and Denmark to investigate whether early signs of bowel cancer can be spotted in people’s blood stream.

The NHS bowel screening test looks for traces of blood in people’s faeces which can be present when people have bowel cancer or pre-cancerous changes called polyps.

Currently, if blood is detected, the person may be asked to take the test again or meet with a specialist to discuss having a colonoscopy – which looks at the inside of the large bowel. 

Professor Tomlinson said that, if successful, the research could lead to a blood test being offered to people who had already had a positive screening test to enable doctors to distinguish between those in need of an urgent colonoscopy and those who could have less urgent investigation.

“Bowel cancer screening is improving in terms of its accuracy and convenience,” said Professor Tomlinson. “We want to make screening even better by offering a blood test to people who have had a positive screening test. We hope this will eventually allow people most likely to have bowel cancer to be identified and treated even earlier.”

In the longer term it is hoped the research might form the basis of a comprehensive study to see how the test might be used as a primary screening method.

In England, people between the ages of 60 and 74 are invited for bowel cancer screening yet figures show that that more than 40% of those eligible didn’t complete the test in 2017/18.

In 2019 NHS England will roll out a new screening test called the faecal immunochemical test (FIT) which requires just one small faeces sample rather than several which were needed previously. The new test is easier to use and so more people are expected to take it up. But, like any test, bowel screening isn’t perfect so people are still advised to tell their doctor if they notice any changes to their body.

Dr David Crosby, Head of Early Detection Research at Cancer Research UK, said: “We are excited to support this pilot study investigating the utility of signals in patients’ blood to improve bowel cancer screening. The validation of whether these types of tests can detect and distinguish polyps from cancer is an important next step for future studies.”