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The Laxative-Free 'Virtual Colonoscopy'

Eliminating the Need for Bowel Prep Could Spur More People to Get Screened for Colon Cancer
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By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 14, 2012-- For many people, preparing for a colonoscopy is sometimes more daunting than the procedure itself.

You typically stop eating solid food for at least a day, and then drink what seems like gallons of liquid to clean out your bowel. You need to stay close to a bathroom, because you will be going and going and going.

Dread of the prep might be one reason why, according to government estimates, about 4 out of 10 Americans ages 50-75 don't meet recommendations for colorectal cancer screening. One common screening option is a colonoscopy every 10 years for those at average risk for colorectal cancer.

But what if you didn't have to purge your colon? Might that increase screening rates?

Michael Zalis, MD, an associate professor of radiology at Harvard, thinks so. Zalis led a new study that suggests a laxative-free "virtual colonoscopy" -- which uses computerized tomography, or CT scanning, to create a three-dimensional view of the colon's interior -- can pick up about 90% of precancerous polyps that are 10 millimeters (0.4 inches) or larger.

That's much better than not detecting any at all because of skipped screenings, says Zalis, director of CT colonography (a medical term for virtual colonoscopy) at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"Colon cancer is a common disease, and it's almost completely preventable," he says. "If we could come up with a more patient-friendly form of screening, we might very well get more people to participate." Colon cancer kills more Americans than any other type of cancer except lung cancer.

Zalis' team studied people 50 to 85 years old who were already scheduled for a conventional colonoscopy. None were at high risk of colon cancer.

The patients first underwent a laxative-free virtual colonoscopy and then a traditional colonoscopy, so the researchers could compare the two methods.

Electronic 'Cleansing'

Before the virtual colonoscopy, the patients were asked to stick to a low-fiber diet and consume tiny amounts -- "about what you might have in a ketchup packet," Zalis says -- of a contrast agent to label fecal material in the colon. Software programs developed by Zalis and his collaborators electronically "cleansed" the feces from the virtual colonoscopy images.

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