SOUTHAMPTON scientists may have found a way to diagnose throat cancer earlier after discovering its link to heartburn.

An international study, including University of Southampton researchers, have identified two problems that signal early onset oesophageal cancer.

Heartburn, otherwise known as acid reflux, damaged cells in the oesophagus that, if untreated, can lead to a condition called Barrett's oesophagus which can turn cancerous.

Barrett's is very difficult to diagnose, making it difficult to identify people who are at higher risk of developing cancer.

But by comparing samples from patients with Barrett's and patients with throat cancer, scientists believe they have discovered mutations that show when Barrett's will become cancer.

Tim Underwood, MRC clinician scientist at the University of Southampton and Oesophageal Surgeon at Southampton General Hospital, said: “This is a landmark study into the genetic basis of why and how some people with Barrett's oesophagus get oesophageal cancer and others do not.

"It is still early, but we very much hope that this information will lead to a game-changer for a cancer with one of the worst outcomes.

“This study also tells us that we may need to look outside the cancer itself to find the next generation of treatments. We are leading this research in Southampton by focussing on disrupting the interaction between cancer cells and normal cells around the tumour that appear to support cancer growth.”

And a new test that is still being developed could be used to spot when Barrett's will develop.

The cytosponge, or 'sponge-on-a-string' test, involves swallowing a capsule attached to a piece of thread.

Inside the capsule is a sponge and, when the capsule reaches the stomach, the outer covering of the capsule dissolves. When pulled out, the sponge collects cells for testing as it passes up the oesophagus.

The University of Southampton, working with University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, provided the second largest amount of samples to the study.

Oesophageal cancer is the thirteenth most common cancer in the UK with around 5,600 men in the UK developing it every year and 2,750 women.

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK's Catalyst Club.

Nell Barrie, head of science information at Cancer Research UK, added: “Food getting stuck when you swallow and persistent heartburn aren't normal. If you notice these, or other unusual symptoms, you should see your GP. It probably won't be cancer, but it's essential to get checked out.”