Growing doubts over standard prostate cancer test

March 13, 2010 by Jean-Louis Santini

The most commonly used prostate cancer screening procedure, PSA, is at the center of a growing debate after its discoverer said it had become a "hugely expensive public health disaster."

In a commentary in The New York Times, Richard Ablin of the University of Arizona said the he discovered four decades ago now costs too much and is ineffective.

The American Cancer Society, which does not recommend the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test -- a standard screening for men since the 1990s -- has urged doctors to speak to their patients about its risks and its limits.

, the second most common cancer in men worldwide after , kills an estimated 254,000 men each year.

The new recommendations were based on preliminary results from two major studies -- one led in Europe and the other in the United States -- published last year in the journal.

The clinical trials found that the blood test could not be proved to save lives.

PSA does not allow to distinguish between aggressive cancers that require intervention and slow-developing tumors that, depending on the patient's age, likely will not be a primary cause of death, according to the American Cancer Society.

Furthermore, the test can also provide erroneous results.

As soon as they turn 50 years old, healthy men who bear no symptoms of cancer and are expected to live at least 10 more years should be informed by their doctors of the pros and cons of a PSA screening before deciding to undergo the test, the cancer society recommends.

"For them, the risks likely outweigh the benefits," it said in a statement.

According to Ablin, American men have a 16 percent chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer but only a three percent chance of dying from it because most cancers develop slowly over time.

He deplored PSA screenings' annual cost of at least three billion dollars, much of that paid for by Medicare, the insurance program for the elderly, and the Veterans Administration.

"The test's popularity has led to a hugely expensive public health disaster," he wrote in his column.

"As I've been trying to make clear for many years now, PSA testing can't detect prostate cancer and, more important, it can't distinguish between the two types of prostate cancer -- the one that will kill you and the one that won't.

"Instead, the test simply reveals how much of the prostate antigen a man has in his blood," he added.

Levels of PSA, a protein produced only prostate cells, can jump when a prostate tumor grows in size. But they can also increase as the prostate enlarges naturally with a patient's age.

Explore further: Should the UK lower the age for prostate cancer detection?

Related Stories

1 in 5 young men has had recent prostate cancer test

August 11, 2008

A new analysis finds that one in five men in their 40s has had a prostate specific antigen (PSA) test within the previous year and that young black men are more likely than young white men to have undergone the test. The ...

Men who take aspirin have significantly lower PSA levels

November 16, 2008

The use of aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) is significantly associated with lower PSA levels, especially among men with prostate cancer, say researchers at Vanderbilt University.

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Mar 14, 2010
I attended a local Health Fair today and a panel of doctors talked about the cons of this very same issue. An article at http://1choicefit...ier-you/ shares tips to avoid this situation in many cases.

not rated yet Mar 14, 2010
The $30 I spent for a PSA test was the best investment I ever made. Because my brother had died of prostate cancer, I was getting myself tested two times a year. Insurance only covered one, but I gladly paid for the other one. In 2004, an elevated PSA result (5.1) was the only warning I had. Followup tests confirmed I had the aggressive form of prostate cancer. I was treated and am still alive and well. There is no other test readily available that could detect this cancer. Any man choosing not to get tested is playing a serious game of Russian Roulette.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.