Background: Patients with ulcerative colitis are at a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer than those without the disease. Surveillance programmes are used routinely to detect dysplasia and cancer in patients with ulcerative colitis. However, such programmes are poorly effective. This article discusses possible improvements suggested by recent research.
Methods: Papers relating to cancer associated with ulcerative colitis and surveillance programmes to detect such cancer were identified using Medline searches. Further papers were identified from the reference lists of identified papers.
Results: The probability of cancer for all patients with ulcerative colitis regardless of disease extent was 2 per cent at 10 years, 8 per cent at 20 years and 18 per cent at 30 years; the overall prevalence of colorectal cancer in any patient was 3.7 per cent. Indications for colonoscopic surveillance are extensive disease for 8-10 years, especially in those with active inflammation, a family history of colorectal cancer and primary sclerosing cholangitis. Problems affecting surveillance include the diagnosis of dysplasia, difficulty in differentiating 'sporadic' adenomas from a dysplasia-associated lesion or mass, and decision making based on surveillance findings. Molecular genetic and endoscopic advances to alleviate these problems are discussed.
Conclusion: Rates of detection of dysplasia can be improved by chromoendoscopy. Molecular genetics has the potential to identify patients most at risk of cancer and can differentiate between different types of lesion.