British scientists have developed a new test to detect early signs of anal cancer, which will potentially save thousands of lives – especially among high risk groups such as gay men.

Scientists at the Medical Research Council (MRC) have found a new and improved technique to detect anal cancer that may cause the number of people dying from the disease to drop significantly.

The incidence of anal cancer is estimated as 37 per 100,000 in gay men, which is similar to the rate of cervical cancer in women before the introduction of pap smear screening. For gay men who are HIV-positive, the incidence is about twice as great – around 75 per 100,000.

The research explored using minichromosome maintenance proteins (MCMs) to detect pre-cancerous and cancerous cells in the anus. The study, funded by the MRC and Cancer Research UK, is published in the American journal Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers and Prevention.

MCMs have been used to find pre-cancerous and cancerous cells in other areas of the body more accurately and effectively but this is the first time they have been used to detect anal cancer.

Lead author of the study, Dr Nick Coleman, said: “Anal cancer is a difficult disease to detect and many cases are identified after it becomes too late for people to undergo simple surgery to remove it. We wanted to create a test which was easier to perform and had a high rate of accuracy. This study suggests that MCM testing fits the bill very well indeed.”

The study first involved screening anal tissue samples from different patients to pick up the biological differences between normal cells and cancer cells. The scientists found that normal tissue lacked MCMs whereas anal cancer and pre-cancer had an abundance of MCMs. The power of MCM testing was then shown in an independent group study of 235 anal smears from 144 subjects.

The test successfully identified 84% of the patients with anal pre-cancer, without producing a high rate of false alarms in people without disease.

“We must also continue to raise awareness of the disease, particularly among people in high risk groups such as gay and bisexual men so they can take action if they have symptoms,” said Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, who welcomed the news.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has lobbied for anal cancer screening and treatment programmes targeted at the higher risk gay community for many years.

“For gay and bisexual men who are at risk of anal cancer, these tests are an important medical breakthrough. They will help save lives. With this reliable screening test, signs of anal cancer will be detected earlier, leading to speedier, more effective treatment,” he said.

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