Wendy Atkin obituary

Epidemiologist whose research led to a breakthrough in bowel cancer screening programmes worldwide

“Breakthrough” is an overused word when applied to medical advances. But in the case of the 2010 trial of a new screening test for bowel cancer led by Wendy Atkin, professor of gastrointestinal epidemiology at Imperial College London, who has died of acute myeloid leukaemia aged 71, it is fully deserved. Its impact will be felt by millions. The trial was the first in the world to show that bowel cancer – the second biggest cancer killer in the UK – could be prevented with a simple, five-minute test.

The examination – where a sigmoidoscope (a camera mounted on a thin, flexible tube) is inserted into the rectum to detect polyps, which are then ablated (burnt) or snipped off – is now being offered to all 55- to 60-year-olds in England after a follow-up study showed it reduced deaths from bowel cancer by 43% for as long as 17 years after screening, making it the most effective of all cancer screening tests. In the lower bowel, the test prevented half of potential cancers from developing in that area.

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