Scientists have today announced results from the first trial in the world to show that bowel cancer can be prevented with a simple, once-in-a-lifetime, five-minute screening test.

Among 40,000 people screened, the test cut the incidence of the cancer by a third and the death rate by 43 per cent over a decade. Bowel cancer is the second biggest cancer killer in the UK – after lung cancer – claiming 16,000 lives a year.

Commenting on the findings, the head of Britain's biggest cancer charity said: "We don't often use the word breakthrough but this is an occasion when I will." Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK, added: "It is extremely rare to see trial results as compelling as these. Thousands of lives could be saved every year and tens of thousands of families could be spared the anxiety and suffering of a cancer diagnosis."

The test is so effective that incorporating it into the existing bowel cancer screening programme could potentially save twice as many lives as the estimated 1,400 deaths a year saved by breast cancer screening. Dr Kumar called for the next government to add the test as a "matter of urgency".

The study started in 1994 when the screening test was offered to men and women aged 55 to 64. The test involves examining the lower bowel with a flexible telescope inserted through the anus for the presence of polyps – small growths which are ablated [burnt] or snipped off. Polyps occur in around one in five people over 55 and in one in 20 they develop into cancer. The procedure is safe, painless, needs no anaesthetic and is over in 5 mins. The protective effect appears to be lifelong so the test should never need repeating.

Professor Wendy Atkin of the department of surgery and cancer at Imperial College, London, who led the study, published in the Lancet, said: "It shows for the first time that we could dramatically reduce the incidence of bowel cancer, and the number of people dying from the disease, by using this one-off test.

"No other bowel cancer screening technique has ever been shown to prevent the disease." Despite 11 years of follow-up, there was no sign of the effect wearing off, she said.

Bowel cancer normally increases with age, but the researchers hope the protective effect of removing the polyps will be lifelong.

It would take three years to introduce a national screening programme and the cost would be outweighed by savings on treatment of bowel cancer, the researchers said.

Dr Kumar said: "Every political party is going to have to look at this trial and ask 'Can we afford not to do it?' It will save lives and it will save the NHS money. It's a no-brainer."

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research.