Researchers have identified changes in sugar molecule patterns that line pre-cancerous cells in the esophagus, a condition called Barrett’s dysplasia, making it much easier to detect and remove these cells before they develop into esophageal cancer.

Researchers working at the Medical Research Council noted that esophageal cancer is the fifth biggest cause of cancer death in the United Kingdom and the eighth leading cause of cancer deaths for men in the United States.

The number of people diagnosed with esophageal cancer has been increasing rapidly.

While dysplasia puts an individual at increased risk of developing esophageal cancer, dysplasia offers stage at which cancer can be prevented by removing these cells.

But identifying such areas correctly has proved to be problematic, the authors said. Dysplasia can easily be missed during endoscopy and biopsy, which only take samples from a small part of the esophagus which can result in false reassurance for patients in whom their dysplasia has been missed, and conversely those without dysplasia having to undergo further unnecessary treatments, the authors said.

Discovering a new mechanism for identifying Barrett’s dysplasia cells the researchers sprayed on a fluorescent probe that sticks to sugars and lights up any abnormal areas during endoscopy.

Using microarray technology the researchers analyzed the sugars present in human tissue samples taken from different stages on the pathway to cancer and found that there were different sugar molecules present on the surface of the pre-cancerous cells.

"The rise in cases of esophageal cancer both in the UK and throughout the Western world means that it is increasingly important to find ways of detecting it as early as possible," said lead author Dr. Rebecca Fitzgerald, of the MRC Cancer Cell Unit of Cambridge.

"Our work has many potential benefits for those with Barrett's esophagus who have an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer."

"We have demonstrated that binding of a wheat germ protein, which is cheap and non-toxic, can identify differences in surface sugars on pre-cancerous cells," she added.

"And when coupled with fluorescence imaging using an endoscopic camera, this technique offers a promising new way of finding and then treating patients with the highest risk of developing esophageal cancer, at the earliest stage."