The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved Cologuard, the first stool-based colorectal screening test that detects the presence of red blood cells and DNA mutations that may indicate the presence of certain kinds of abnormal growths that may be cancers such as colon cancer or precursors to cancer.
Colorectal cancer primarily affects people age 50 and older, and among cancers that affect both men and women, it is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Colorectal cancer screening is effective at reducing illness and death related to colon cancer. The CDC estimates that if everyone age 50 or older had regular screening tests as recommended, at least 60 percent of colorectal cancer deaths could be avoided.
Colorectal cancer occurs in the colon (large intestine) or rectum (the passageway that connects the colon to the anus). Most colorectal cancers start as abnormal raised or flat tissue growths on the wall of the large intestine or rectum (polyps). Some very large polyps are called advanced adenomas and are more likely than smaller polyps to progress to cancer.
Using a stool sample, Cologuard detects hemoglobin, a protein molecule that is a component of blood. Cologuard also detects certain mutations associated with colorectal cancer in the DNA of cells shed by advanced adenomas as stool moves through the large intestine and rectum. Patients with positive test results are advised to undergo a diagnostic colonoscopy.
This approval offers patients and physicians another option to screen for colorectal cancer. Fecal blood testing is a well-established screening tool and the clinical data showed that the test detected more cancers than a commonly used fecal occult test.
The approval of Cologuard does not change current practice guidelines for colorectal cancer screening. Stool DNA testing, also called ‘fecal DNA testing’, is not currently recommended as a method to screen for colorectal cancer by the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Among other guidelines, the USPSTF recommends adults age 50 to 75, at average risk for colon cancer, be screened using fecal occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, or colonoscopy.
The safety and effectiveness of Cologuard was established in a clinical trial that screened 10,023 subjects. The trial compared the performance of Cologuard to the fecal immunochemical test (FIT), a commonly used non-invasive screening test that detects blood in the stool. Cologuard accurately detected cancers and advanced adenomas more often than the FIT test. Cologuard detected 92 percent of colorectal cancers and 42 percent of advanced adenomas in the study population, while the FIT screening test detected 74 percent of cancers and 24 percent of advanced adenomas. Cologuard was less accurate than FIT at correctly identifying subjects negative for colorectal cancer or advanced adenomas. Cologuard correctly gave a negative screening result for 87 percent of the study subjects, while FIT provided accurate negative screening results for 95 percent of the study population.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) have also issued a proposed national coverage determination for Cologuard. Cologuard is the first product reviewed through a joint FDA-CMS pilot program known as parallel review where the agencies concurrently review medical devices to help reduce the time between the FDA’s approval of a device and Medicare coverage.
This voluntary pilot program is open to certain premarket approval applications for devices with new technologies and to medical devices that fall within the scope of a Part A or Part B Medicare benefit category and have not been subject to a national coverage determination. The CMS explain that parallel review allows the last part of the FDA process to run at the same time as the CMS process, cutting as many as six months from the time from study initiation to coverage.
This is the first time in history that FDA has approved a technology and CMS has proposed national coverage on the same day. This parallel review represents unprecedented collaboration between the two agencies and industry and most importantly will provide timely access for Medicare beneficiaries to an innovative screening test to help in the early detection of colorectal cancer.
CMS proposes to cover the Cologuard test once every three years for Medicare beneficiaries who meet all of the following criteria:
- age 50 to 85 years,
- asymptomatic (no signs or symptoms of colorectal disease including but not limited to lower gastrointestinal pain, blood in stool, positive guaiac fecal occult blood test or fecal immunochemical test), and
- average risk of developing colorectal cancer (no personal history of adenomatous polyps, of colorectal cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis; no family history of colorectal cancers or an adenomatous polyp, familial adenomatous polyposis, or hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer).
Cologuard is manufactured by Exact Sciences in Madison, Wisconsin.