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New technology has created alternatives for colorectal cancer screening. gahsoon/Getty Images
  • Researchers say some people who have a negative result from a colonoscopy may be able to wait longer than 10 years for their next colorectal screening exam.
  • They noted that this recommendation is particularly applicable to women and younger adults.
  • Experts say new technologies, such as liquid biopsy blood tests, are providing alternatives to colonoscopies for cancer screening.

It’s probably safe to say that no one enjoys getting a colonoscopy.

They’re invasive, require intense preparation work, and can cause anxiety for some people.

But since they were first introduced in 1969, these tests have become an integral part of preventative medicine for men and women in the United States and worldwide.

And they’ve saved many lives.

Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society.

There’s been much debate in medical circles over how often people who have no or little family history of colorectal cancer and have negative results need to have a colonoscopy.

A recent study provides some new insights.

The study, which was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, looked at whether the recommended 10-year test interval between colonoscopies for many people can be extended.

Researchers studied more than 120,000 repeat screening colonoscopy participants 65 years or older who had a previous negative screening colonoscopy at least 10 years prior.

The findings were compared with all screening colonoscopies conducted at 65 years or older during the same period (1.25 million).

The authors concluded that current 10-year screening intervals for colonoscopies are safe and suggested that extending the intervals may be warranted in some instances — especially for women and younger people without gastrointestinal symptoms.

“For instance, women at younger screening ages with no finding at index colonoscopy could possibly be screened at prolonged intervals or, alternatively, be offered less invasive methods, such as stool tests, while maintaining the 10-year interval for men and women at older ages,” the study authors wrote.

The researchers noted that there are costs associated with frequent colonoscopies with scant data available on screenings conducted 10 or more years following a negative colonoscopy.

Dr. John Strickler, an associate professor of medicine and member of the Duke Cancer Institute in North Carolina who focuses on colorectal cancer, was not part of this study.

He said new technology is providing alternatives for colorectal cancer screenings.

“What we’re seeing now is that new technologies in the clinic to complement colonoscopy are having an impact on people with this type of cancer and when and how often they are screened,” Strickler told Healthline. “This is important because there is a finite number of resources.”

Strickler added, “I think this study provides reassurance that patients can have a more tailored approach based on risk,” he added. “It’s a valuable option because colonoscopies are not easy to schedule. And I think this makes patients feel like they are in the game.”

Liquid biopsy companies are one of those new technologies.

Liquid biopsies, which are tests that enable the diagnosis or analysis of tumors using a simple blood or fluid sample rather than a solid tissue biopsy, are making inroads in colorectal diagnosis.

A number of clinical trials are underway.

For example, Guardant, a precision oncology company, is partnering with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust for Part C of the TRACC study, which will involve approximately 40 sites and more than 1,600 people across the United Kingdom with early-stage colorectal cancer.

“Many patients with early-stage colorectal cancer are currently overtreated with chemotherapy,” Thereasa Rich, MS, the senior medical science liaison at Guardant Health, told Healthline.

“The study will evaluate the use of a ctDNA blood test after curative surgery to help oncologists understand when they can avoid unnecessary chemotherapy and the associated side effects for patients who have no residual disease detected,” she added.

“Another area of significant potential for this type of technology is the use of blood-based tests as a convenient and effective alternative screening method for colorectal cancer that can overcome patient resistance to existing methods, such as colonoscopy and stool-based tests,” Rich noted.