Taking some of the sting out of prostate testing

May 24, 2012 | by City of Hope Staff

The last few days have seen some pretty passionate debate around the country about prostate cancer screening. Should men routinely get PSA tests even though most of the men with elevated PSA levels actually have no cancer?

Photo of Elizabeth Singer, right, and Steve Smith Elizabeth Singer, right, and Steve Smith are seeking better ways to diagnose prostate cancer. (Photo by Darrin S. Joy)

A federal panel suggested that these tests for PSA (prostate-specific antigen) do more harm than good because suspicious results put many men through follow-up testing that proves unnecessary. When screening shows a man has high PSA levels, doctors take a prostate biopsy, or tissue sample. If the sample doesn’t seem to have cancer cells, but PSA levels stay high over time, doctors keep taking these costly and potentially painful biopsies to make sure there’s really no cancer.

But many doctors say the recommendation does a disservice because the tests can find prostate cancer when it’s most treatable.

Now technology under development could potentially provide a faster, more efficient answer about whether a man has cancer, taking some of the sting out of the process.

City of Hope researchers shared their latest results this morning at the American Urological Association annual meeting in Atlanta. They showed that a tiny device they developed can tell the difference between prostate cancer and benign prostatic hyperplasia. This is a common, non-cancerous condition that can cause high levels of PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, just like prostate cancer does.

The nanodevice is a molecule created to glow under a special light. They’ve engineered it so that it’s drawn to enzymes active in cancer. When they exposed samples of prostate stromal tissue (supportive tissue) to their molecules, the samples that had prostate cancer glowed more intensely than tissue with benign prostatic hyperplasia. They hope that doctors can eventually use the technology to diagnose prostate cancer more accurately — the first time.

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