This screening method could help cut prostate cancer death

In a new study, researchers found that nearly one in six deaths from prostate cancer could be prevented if targeted screening was introduced for men at a higher genetic risk of the disease.

The research was conducted by a team at University College London.

Prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men with around 130 new cases diagnosed in the UK every day and more than 10,000 men a year dying as a result of the disease.

However, unlike breast and cervical cancer, there is currently no national screening program for this disease in the UK.

A blood test that detects raised levels of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) can be used to screen for prostate cancer.

However, this test is not a reliable indicator as it does not accurately distinguish between dangerous cancers from harmless ones—leading to both unnecessary operations and missed cancers that are harmful.

The study modeled the harms and benefits of introducing four-yearly PSA screening for all men aged 55 to 69 versus more targeted checks for those at higher risk of the disease.

The researchers found that the best approach would be to screen men at a slightly higher genetic risk (a 4-7% risk of getting prostate cancer over the next 10 years) as this would have the biggest health benefit, preventing deaths from prostate cancer while minimizing unnecessary treatments for harmless tumors.

This is because men with a higher genetic risk are more likely to benefit and less likely to be harmed by undertaking screening.

Screening all men in that age group would result in the most deaths averted (20%) but, along with the extra cost, would also lead to a large number of unnecessary diagnoses, with nearly one in three cancers detected by screening being harmless.

Screening at a threshold of 4% would prevent 15% of deaths from prostate cancer—nearly one in six deaths—while delivering the greatest gains in terms of quality-adjusted life years, meaning more years of good health across the population.

This would also reduce the number of unnecessary diagnoses of harmless cancers by about one third compared with screening all men aged 55 to 69.

Screening men with a 4-7% risk would also be much more cost-effective than screening all men aged 55 to 69, saving between a fifth (for the 4% risk threshold) to nearly half of the cost (7% risk threshold), while maintaining the benefits of screening.

Under the scenarios simulated, men aged 55 to 69 would have four-yearly checks once they had reached the risk threshold.

This would mean a widening proportion of men having checks the older they got, as older men are at greater risk of the disease.

Pioneering UCL-led research has already led to a change in the way prostate cancer is diagnosed.

As of last December, MRI is now recommended as the first test for men suspected of having cancer.

The team says targeted screening based on genetic risk would require an evolution of screening services.

They noted that inviting people for screening at different ages may affect screening delivery and that the broader impact of screening using genetic risk required further research.

One author of the study is Professor Nora Pashayan (UCL Applied Health Research).

The study is published in PLOS Medicine.

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