Good news from Hopkins

Colonoscopy: A new test for colorectal cancer will be less invasive and less expensive.

February 03, 2002

IF YOU'RE over 50, Johns Hopkins may be your new best friend.

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center reported this week that they have developed a test for colorectal cancer that would significantly reduce the number of people who have to undergo colonoscopies. The test is expected to be available for widespread use in three to five years.

According to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, the test requires a patient to submit a stool sample for genetic testing, and only those who test positive using the new procedure would have to undergo a colonoscopy. This is very good news.

Colonoscopies have been invaluable tools in the early detection of colorectal cancer, the deadliest cancer in the country after lung cancer. And that's especially important with colon cancer because early detection saves lives, according to Hopkins' Dr. Bert Vogelstein, a pioneer researcher in the field. So these days, many physicians recommend that their patients over 50 years of age undergo a colonoscopy periodically.

The problem is, it's an invasive, expensive and downright unpleasant procedure. After a day or two of downing purgatives and fasting, the patient is anesthetized and a tiny camera attached to a long, flexible tube is snaked through the bowel, looking for trouble. And that's before the doctor even knows if there's anything wrong.

With the new test, a colonoscopy would be necessary to locate and treat a tumor, but only after a stool sample had indicated a tumor was present. The test isn't yet ready for general use, but Dr. Vogelstein told The Sun he thought that with minor refinements it could be 70 percent effective in detecting tumors.

This news is particularly heartening, coming as it does after what can only be called a difficult year for Hopkins research. Last summer, a young woman died as a result of participating in an asthma study at the university, and the resulting federal investigation found appalling lapses in the school's safety procedures for human research subjects.

Not long after that, the Kennedy Krieger Institute, an affiliate of Hopkins, was roundly criticized by the Maryland Court of Appeals for its research methods in studies dealing with children exposed to lead paint in their homes.

In each case, the initial institutional response struck a note of arrogance rather than of apology. But scathing criticism and the suspension of human medical experiments at the university prompted a change both of attitude and of procedures.

And now we have a fresh reminder of the kind of scientific breakthrough that has made Johns Hopkins a respected name around the world, and a neighbor we are proud to claim.

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