Thousands of lives could be saved every year by a one-off screening test in practice that checks for the early signs of bowel cancer, a study has found.
A study of 170,432 men and women who underwent sigmoidoscopy found that the death rate among participants was reduced by 43% while the risk of developing bowel cancer, the third most common form of the disease in the UK and the second biggest killer after lung cancer, was also cut by a third.
The procedure involves the insertion of a camera mounted on a thin, flexible tube which allows doctors to inspect the bowel for signs of polyps or growths that often precede the onset of bowel cancer.
Most bowel cancers stem from polyps or symptomless growths in the rectum and colon and where these were found they were removed in a safe and pain-free procedure, the researchers said.
The team of researchers who carried out the study, published online in The Lancet journal, said that the early-warning screening could save thousands of lives every year and spare even more the trauma of undergoing invasive cancer diagnosis and treatment.
The results were hailed as a "breakthrough" by Harpal Kumar, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK.
He called for the incoming government after the general election to add the test to the existing bowel cancer screening programme as a "matter of urgency".
He said: "Cancer Research UK does not often use the word 'breakthrough' but this is one of those rare occasions when I am going to use this word.
"It is extremely rare to see the results of a clinical trial which are quite as compelling as this one and which has quite the huge impact in terms of the potential for improving cancer outcomes."