Microbiome Analysis of More Than 2,000 NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme Samples Shows the Potential to Improve Screening Accuracy

Clin Cancer Res. 2021 Apr 15;27(8):2246-2254. doi: 10.1158/1078-0432.CCR-20-3807. Epub 2021 Mar 3.


Purpose: There is potential for fecal microbiome profiling to improve colorectal cancer screening. This has been demonstrated by research studies, but it has not been quantified at scale using samples collected and processed routinely by a national screening program.

Experimental design: Between 2016 and 2019, the largest of the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme hubs prospectively collected processed guaiac fecal occult blood test (gFOBT) samples with subsequent colonoscopy outcomes: blood-negative [n = 491 (22%)]; colorectal cancer [n = 430 (19%)]; adenoma [n = 665 (30%)]; colonoscopy-normal [n = 300 (13%)]; nonneoplastic [n = 366 (16%)]. Samples were transported and stored at room temperature. DNA underwent 16S rRNA gene V4 amplicon sequencing. Taxonomic profiling was performed to provide features for classification via random forests (RF).

Results: Samples provided 16S amplicon-based microbial profiles, which confirmed previously described colorectal cancer-microbiome associations. Microbiome-based RF models showed potential as a first-tier screen, distinguishing colorectal cancer or neoplasm (colorectal cancer or adenoma) from blood-negative with AUC 0.86 (0.82-0.89) and AUC 0.78 (0.74-0.82), respectively. Microbiome-based models also showed potential as a second-tier screen, distinguishing from among gFOBT blood-positive samples, colorectal cancer or neoplasm from colonoscopy-normal with AUC 0.79 (0.74-0.83) and AUC 0.73 (0.68-0.77), respectively. Models remained robust when restricted to 15 taxa, and performed similarly during external validation with metagenomic datasets.

Conclusions: Microbiome features can be assessed using gFOBT samples collected and processed routinely by a national colorectal cancer screening program to improve accuracy as a first- or second-tier screen. The models required as few as 15 taxa, raising the potential of an inexpensive qPCR test. This could reduce the number of colonoscopies in countries that use fecal occult blood test screening.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Colonoscopy
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / diagnosis*
  • Colorectal Neoplasms / microbiology
  • DNA, Bacterial / isolation & purification
  • Early Detection of Cancer / methods*
  • Early Detection of Cancer / statistics & numerical data
  • England
  • Feces / microbiology
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Occult Blood
  • Prospective Studies
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • State Medicine


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S