Open Access

CT colonography (‘virtual colonoscopy’): Is it ready for colorectal cancer screening?

Cancer Imaging20153:20

DOI: 10.1102/1470-7330.2003.0021

Accepted: 3 September 2003

Published: 5 May 2015

Colorectal cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death worldwide[1] but is largely preventable. Most colorectal cancers arise from benign adenomatous polyps, which grow slowly. Thus colorectal cancer is highly suited to screening because of its long preclinical phase during which it is detectable and curable [2]. Multiple organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (AHCPR), the US Preventive Service Task Force (USPSTF), and the American Gastroenterology Association (AGA) have issued or endorsed guidelines for colorectal cancer screening. The screening tests endorsed by these organizations include fecal occult blood testing, flexible sigmoidoscopy, air-contrast barium enema, and colonoscopy.

Unfortunately, screening programs for colorectal cancer have been only partly successful, owing largely to poor patient compliance with screening recommendations [3,4]. Recent studies indicate compliance rates of only approximately 30%[5,6]. Major obstacles to patient acceptance of colorectal cancer screening with colonoscopy are the requirement for a rigorous bowel preparation, the invasiveness of the procedure and the need for sedation.

Computed tomography colonography (CTC) (also known as ‘virtual colonoscopy’) is a more recently developed test, which has not yet been endorsed as a colorectal cancer screening test, although it has been shown to be useful for certain clinical indications. Many radiologists are optimistic that CTC eventually will become an important screening test for colorectal cancer, but some radiologists already are offering it to patients directly. Is this practice appropriate or is it premature? This editorial addresses the question, ‘Is virtual colonoscopy ready to be used as a screening test for colorectal cancer?’

CTC has a number of potential advantages compared with conventional fiberoptic colonoscopy. It is a non-invasive technique, requires no sedation, and can be completed in a much shorter time. The majority of studies assessing the relative acceptability of CTC and conventional colonoscopy in patients who have undergone both tests on the same day have demonstrated a preference for CTC[711]. CTC is also safer than colonoscopy. Colon perforation occurs in 1 : 1000 patients who undergo conventional colonoscopy, and the mortality rate is 1 : 5000[1217]. Although experience with CTC is much more limited, no CTC related colon perforations have been reported, and it is likely that the morbidity and mortality associated with CTC will be similar to those for air-contrast barium enema (perforation rate of 1 : 10 000 and mortality rate of 1: 50 000)[1820]. CTC has the potential to examine the colon completely in nearly all patients, whereas conventional colonoscopy is incomplete in 5–10% of average patients[21]. In addition, CTC eliminates blind spots that can be problematic with conventional colonoscopy. For example, CT colonography is able to demonstrate lesions behind haustral folds and beyond bends in the colon because of its ability to provide an endoluminal view of the colon in both forward and reverse directions and its ability to demonstrate the colon in both 2- and 3-dimensional perspectives. For the same reasons, localization of colonic lesions is more accurate with CTC than with fiberoptic colonoscopy.

On the other hand, CTC has some limitations. Pitfalls that can result in false-negative diagnoses include retained fluid, which can obscure lesions, incomplete distention of some colonic segments, and inability to demonstrate flat lesions. Pitfalls that can result in false-positive diagnoses include retained stool and nodular folds, which can be mistaken for polyps. An important disadvantage of CTC compared with colonoscopy is that CTC does not allow biopsy or removal of polyps that are identified. In addition, although CTC has been shown to have sensitivity and specificity similar to fiberoptic colonoscopy for detecting >10 mm polyps in high risk populations[2225], it has not been shown to have similar accuracy in patients who are at average risk for colorectal cancer[26]. Furthermore, the CTC studies published to date have been performed in academic centers by experienced radiologists with expertise in colonic imaging. The diagnostic performance of CTC in a general practice environment has not been tested.

Although no published studies have yet demonstrated the efficacy of CTC in a screening setting, several studies have demonstrated its usefulness in patients who have undergone an incomplete colonoscopy [27,28] or in patients with an occlusive colon carcinoma[29]. CTC also can be useful for patients who have a contraindication to conventional colonoscopy.

Despite the tremendous promise of CTC, evidence to support its use as a technique for colorectal cancer screening is currently lacking. Nevertheless, studies performed over the next five years may provide that evidence. Well controlled large scale prospective clinical trials are necessary to determine the efficacy of CTC in a screening setting.

If CTC will eventually play a major role in colorectal cancer screening, several important issues will have to be addressed.
  • Cost: The cost of CTC will have to be competitive with that of conventional colonoscopy.

  • Patient acceptance: The examination will have to be more acceptable to patients than conventional colonoscopy. A number of studies have demonstrated that this already is the case[7,8,10,11]. In addition, use of ‘electronic bowel cleansing’ (i.e. tagging stool with ingested contrast material and then subtracting the radiodense material from the CT image) may obviate a cathartic bowel preparation, further increasing patient acceptance of CTC [3033].

  • Sensitivity and Specificity: Ideally, the sensitivity of CTC should be competitive with that of fiberoptic colonoscopy. However, even if the sensitivity of CTC is somewhat lower than that of colonoscopy, the test can have a large impact on preventing colorectal cancer, if it is significantly more acceptable to patients, enabling a higher percentage of patients to be screened. In addition, the specificity of CTC will have to be reasonably high to avoid large numbers of unnecessary colonoscopies prompted by false-positive examinations. A great deal of investigation is currently underway to develop effective computer aided diagnosis (CAD) systems to help improve polyp detection with CTC[3436]. Additionally, continued improvements in multislice CT systems combined with improved software for image evaluation have recently improved the overall effectiveness of CTC.

  • Radiation dose: The radiation dose of CTC examinations will have to be minimized for it to be acceptable as a widespread screening procedure. Recent studies have demonstrated that CTC can be performed effectively with X-ray doses equivalent to or less than those imparted by a barium enema examination [3739].

Ultimately, the important issue is not whether CTC is better or worse than colonoscopy or other screening tests for colorectal polyp detection. The objective of colorectal cancer screening is to prevent cancers and save lives. The unfortunate fact is that current compliance for colorectal cancer screening programs is very low, and patients continue to die from colorectal cancers that could have been prevented. If implementation of a technique like CTC can improve colorectal cancer screening compliance, then many lives can be saved. My hope is that well designed, large scale clinical studies will demonstrate the effectiveness of CTC as a screening test for colorectal cancer. Until then, however, use of CTC for colorectal cancer screening is, in my opinion, premature.

Notes

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, Washington University School of Medicine

References

  1. Stewart BW, Kleihues P, eds. World Cancer Report. Lyon, France: IARC Press, 2003: p. 13.Google Scholar
  2. Bond JH. Screening guidelines for colorectal cancer. Am J Med 1999; 106(1A) 7S–10S: 75–105.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Vernon SW. Participation in colorectal cancer screening: a review. J Natl Cancer Inst 1997; 89: 1406–23.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Centers for Disease Control. Screening for colorectal cancer—United States, 1997. MMWR 1999; 48: 116–21.Google Scholar
  5. Trends in screening for colorectal cancer—United States, 1997 and 1999. MMWR 2000; 50: 162–6.
  6. Ferrucci JT. Colon cancer screening with virtual colonoscopy: promise, polyps, politics. AJR 2001; 177: 975–88.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Svensson MH, Svensson E, Lasson A, Hellstrom M. Patient acceptance of CT colonography and conventional colonoscopy: prospective comparative study in patients with or suspected of having colorectal disease. Radiology 2002; 222: 337–45.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Angtuaco TL, Banaad-Omiotek GD, Howden CW. Differing attitudes toward virtual and conventional colonoscopy for colorectal cancer screening: surveys among primary care physicians and potential patients. Am J Gastroenterol 2001; 96: 887–93.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Akerkar GA, Yee J, Hung R, McQuaid K. Patient experience and preferences toward colon cancer screening. Gastrointest Endosc 2001; 54: 310–15.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Thomeer M, Bielen D, Vanbeckevoort D et al. Patient acceptance for CT colonography: what is the real issue? Eur Radiol 2002; 12: 1410–15.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Gluecker TM, Johnson CD, Harmsen WS, Offord KP, Harris AM, Wilson LA, Ahiquist DA. Colorectal cancer screening with CT colonography, colonoscopy, and double-contrast barium enema examination: prospective assessment of patient perceptions and preferences. Radiology 2003; 227: 378–84.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Habr-Gama A, Waye JD. Complications and hazards of gastrointestinal endoscopy. World J Surg 1989; 13: 193–201.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Winawer SJ, Fletcher RH, Miller L et al. Colorectal cancer screening: clinical guidelines and rationale. Gastroenterology 1997; 112: 594–642.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Rex DK, Lehman GA, Hawes RH et al. Screening colonoscopy in symptomatic average-risk persons with negative fecal occult blood tests. Gastroenterology 1991; 100: 64–7.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Godreau CJ. Office-based colonoscopy in a family practice. Fam Pract Res J 1992; 12: 313–20.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Jentschura D, Raute M, Winter J et al. Complications in endoscopy of the lower gastrointestinal tract: therapy and prognosis. Surg Endosc 1994; 8: 672–6.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Waye JD, Lewis BS, Yessayan S. Colonoscopy: a prospective reportofcomplications. J Clin Gastroenterol 1992; 15: 347–51.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Masel H, Masel JP, Casey KV. A survey of colon examination techniques in Australia and New Zealand with a review of complications. Australas Radiol 1971; 15: 140–7.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Gardiner H, Miller RE. Barium peritonitis: a new therapeutic approach. Am J Surg 1973; 125: 350–2.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  20. Han SY, Tishler JM. Perforation of the colon above the peritoneal reflection during the barium-enema examination. Radiology 1982; 144: 253–5.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Marshall JB, Barthel JS. The frequency of total colonoscopy and terminal ileal intubation in the 1990s. Gastrointest Endosc 1993; 39: 518–20.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Fenlon HM, Nunes DP, Schroy PC et al. A comparison of virtual and conventional colonoscopy for the detection of colorectal polyps. NEJM 1999; 341: 1496–503.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Yee J, Akerkar GA, Hung RK, Steinauer-Gebauer AM, Wall SD, McQuaid KR. Colorectal neoplasia: performance characteristics of CT colonography for detection in 300 patients. Radiology 2001; 219: 685–92.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Laghi A, Iannaccone R, Carbone I et al. Detection of colorectal lesions with virtual computed tomographic colonography. Am J Surg 2002; 183: 124–31.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Laghi A, Iannaccone R, Carbone I et al. Computed tomographic colonography (virtual colonoscopy): blinded prospective comparison with conventional colonoscopy for the detection of colorectal neoplasia. Endoscopy 2002; 34: 441–6.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Johnson CD, Harmsen WS, Wilson LA et al. Prospective blinded evaluation of computed tomographic colonography for screen detection of colorectal polyps. Gastroenterology 2003; 125: 311–9.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Morrin MM, Kruskal JB, Farrell RJ, Goldberg SN, McGee BJ, Paptopoulos V. Endoluminal CT colonography after an incomplete endoscopic colonoscopy. AJR 1999; 172: 913–8.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Macari M, Berman P, Dicker M, Milano A, Megibow AJ. Usefulness of CT colonography in patients with incomplete colonoscopy. AJR 1999; 173: 561–4.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Fenlon HM, McAneny DB, Nunes DP, Clarke PD, Ferrucci JT. Occlusive colon carcinoma: virtual colonoscopy in the preoperative evaluation of the proximal colon. Radiology 1999; 210: 423–8.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Zalis ME, Hahn PF. Digital subtraction bowel cleansing in CT colonography. AJR 2001; 176: 646–8.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Callstrom MR, Johnson CD, Fletcher JG et al. CT colonography without cathartic preparation: feasibility study. Radiology 2001; 219: 693–8.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Lefere PA, Gryspeerdt SS, Dewyspelaere J, Baekelandt M, Van Holsbeeck BG. Dietary fecal tagging as a cleansing method before CT colonography: initial results—polyp detection and patient acceptance. Radiology 2002; 224: 393–403.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Thomeer M, Carbone I, Bosmans H et al. Stool tagging applied in thin-slice multidetector computed tomography colonography. JCAT 2003; 27: 132–9.Google Scholar
  34. Summers RM, Johnson CD, Pusanik LM et al. Automated polyp detection at CT colonography: feasibility assessment in a human population. Radiology 2001; 219: 51–9.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Paik DS, Beaulieu CF, Jeffrey RB et al. Computer aided detection of polyps in CT colonography: method and free-response ROC evaluation of performance. Radiology 2000; 217: 704.Google Scholar
  36. Summers RM, Jerebko AK, Franaszek M, Malley JD, Johnson CD. Colonic polyps: complementary role of computer-aided detection in CT colonography. Radiology 2002; 225: 391–9.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Hara AK, Johnson CD, Reed JE et al. Reducing data size and radiation dose for CT colonography. AJR 1997; 168: 1181–4.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Macari M, Bini EJ, Xue X et al. Prospective comparison of thin-section low-dose multislice CT colonography to conventional colonoscopy in detecting colorectal polyps and cancers. Radiology 2002; 224: 383–92.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar
  39. van Gelder RE, Venema HW, Serlie IW et al. CT colonography at different radiation dose levels: feasibility of dose reduction. Radiology 2002; 224: 25–33.View ArticlePubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright

© International Cancer Imaging Society 2003

Advertisement