Tests by doctors have proved successful in identifying the early warning signs that could help prevent one of the deadliest cancers.
Using a simple piece of equipment, which amounts to little more than a sponge on a piece of string, patients have been screened for the presence of pre-cancerous cells in the gullet that can be a precursor to oesophageal cancer.
The "Cytosponge" is a swallowable capsule attached to a length of string, which expands in the stomach into a 3cm-wide sponge-like mesh.
Shortly after being swallowed it is removed through the mouth by pulling on the string, the scientists reported in the British Medical Journal.
The sponge collects cells which are analysed in a laboratory. It provides a good way of identifying a condition called Barrett's oesophagus – which can occur in people with a long history of heartburn – and is the main risk factor for oesophageal cancer.
Once diagnosed, patients with the cancer have only a one in 10 chance of surviving five years.
But using the Cytosponge could help doctors spot the warning signs of oesophageal cancer early and save lives, researchers believe.
In a test of the device, doctors assessed 500 patients between the ages of 50 and 70 and found 3% had the condition.
Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald, from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cancer Cell Unit in Cambridge, said: "We are delighted that this trial has shown that patients find this method acceptable and it is a practical screening option."