Interpretation of exploding knowledge about Barrett's esophagus is impaired by use of several conflicting definitions. Because any histological type of esophageal columnar metaplasia carries risk for esophageal adenocarcinoma, the diagnosis of Barrett's esophagus should no longer require demonstration of intestinal-type metaplasia. Endoscopic recognition and grading of Barrett's esophagus remains a significant source of ambiguity. Reflux disease is a key factor for development of Barrett's esophagus, but other factors must underlie its development, since it occurs in only a minority of reflux disease patients. Neither antireflux surgery nor proton pump inhibitor (PPI) therapy has major impacts on cancer risk. Within a year, a major trial should indicate whether low-dose aspirin usefully reduces cancer risk. The best referral centers have transformed the accuracy of screening and surveillance for early curable esophageal adenocarcinoma by use of enhanced and novel endoscopic imaging, visually-guided, rather than blind biopsies and by partnership with expert pathologists. General endoscopists now need to upgrade their skills and equipment so that they can rely mainly on visual targeting of biopsies on mucosal areas of concern in their surveillance practice. General pathologists need to greatly improve their interpretation of biopsies. Endoscopic therapy now achieves very high rates of cure of high-grade dysplasia and esophageal adenocarcinoma with minimal morbidity and risk. Such results will only be achieved by skilled interventional endoscopists. Esophagectomy should now be mainly restricted to patients whose cancer has extended into and beyond the submucosa. Weighing risks and benefits in the management of Barrett's esophagus is difficult, as is the process of adequately informing patients about their specific cancer risk.
© 2011 Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology Foundation and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.