Colorectal Cancer Screenings Up, But Higher Numbers Could Save More Lives

test_tubesMost people don’t want to think about getting tested for colorectal cancer, but shrugging off one of the most diagnosed cancers in the U.S. could have life-threatening consequences. Colorectal cancer is most treatable in its early stages, and a colonoscopy is still the industry standard when it comes to detecting and diagnosing the disease. Good news and bad news: More Americans are getting tested for colon cancer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently reported, but the numbers still aren’t high enough. According to the CDC report, 63 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 75 were screened for colorectal cancer in 2008, up from 52 percent in 2002. The CDC reports that nearly 1,900 deaths per year could be prevented for every 10 percent increase in colonoscopy screenings.  In 2006, more than 53,000 people died from colorectal cancer.

Colonoscopy is a widely used screening method, but it carries risks such as bleeding, perforation of the colon, or heart problems. Although the risks are low for the majority of patients, a 2009 study from the National Cancer Institute found that the risks are considerably higher for older adults and those with health issues such as stroke or diabetes. In addition, many patients find the colonoscopy prep, which usually consists of 1-2 days of an all-liquid diet and doses of bowel-clearing laxatives, to cause more discomfort than the procedure itself. Still other patients are leery of being sedated during the procedure. These patients may turn to companies such as PreMD, which has created a minimally invasive screening that does not require a stool or blood sample. Another company, Exact Sciences, is developing a stool-based DNA screening test for colorectal cancer. For patients on a budget, a new report by research institute RTI International found that fecal blood tests are a more cost-effective option than colonoscopies–good news for companies such as Quidel Corporation, which offers a fecal diagnostic test.

The U.S. baby boomer population is aging, life expectancy has increased, and healthcare reform is expected to make colonoscopies and other screening procedures available to millions of uninsured patients. With these variables, it seems likely that demand for colorectal screenings will increase in the future. Technology designed to stand in for or improve upon for the traditional colonoscopy (such as Invendo Medical‘s less-invasive, single-use, potentially sedation-less colonoscope) may encourage more patients to get tested for this deadly disease.

The government recommends that men and women over age 50 get screened for colon cancer once every two years. In your opinion, how can the biotech industry, medical practitioners, and other stakeholders ensure that screening rates continue to improve?

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