SCOTTISH researchers have helped develop a new way of detecting prostate cancer which could help give men a more accurate diagnosis and avoid unnecessary tests.
• Scottish researchers have devised a new way of testing patients for prostate cancer
• New test will improve accuracy of diagnosis
Scientists hope that the simple genetic test will help identify tumours that can be missed in routine check-ups.
It is also hoped that the technique will save patients undergoing repeated invasive investigations that carry a risk of infection.
Scientists from the Universities of Edinburgh and St Andrews, who led the research, say the improved test works by recognising the “halo” of cells that form around a prostate tumour.
These cells can appear healthy under a microscope, yet contain “silenced genes” that turn off the cell’s ability to naturally protect itself from growing tumours.
The researchers said that by identifying the genetic changes in these halo cells, they can tell if a patient is more likely to have cancer even if a sample of their tissue does not reveal the presence of cancerous cells.
Dr Grant Stewart, clinical lecturer in urology at Edinburgh University, said: “Prostate cancer is the most common cancer for men in the UK – although it can be challenging to diagnose as these tumours are not easily seen on scans.
“Our work shows that there is a more precise way of detecting these cancers.
“This new test helps us to see the ripple effect of a tumour so that even if the cells we examine aren’t cancerous, we can tell there might be a tumour nearby.”
More than one in ten men tested for prostate cancer receives an inconclusive result. A second test is often ordered when a first sample appears to be clear. But blood tests reveal high levels of the protein called prostate specific antigen (PSA) which is linked to prostate cancer.
David Harrison, professor of pathology at the University of St Andrews, said: “Accurate and timely diagnosis is the most important part of the patient journey in cancer.
“Anything that can reliably reduce that period of uncertainty before effective treatment begins is to be welcomed.”
The test was developed in partnership with diagnostics company MDxHealth.
Dr Stewart said it was already available to patients in the US, but scientists hope to work with the NHS to introduce it into routine prostate checks in the UK.
Around 2,700 cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed in Scotland each year, and the disease causes 850 deaths.
Dr Rachel Macdonald, research manager at Prostate Cancer UK, said: “Prostate biopsies can be inconclusive and many of the 40,000 men diagnosed every year often report that they are traumatic and painful.
“These results offer the promise of an additional way to verify the biopsies to improve the accuracy of the diagnosis. We urgently need more research such as this to offer men real hope for more accurate testing in the future.”
CASE STUDY: ‘Being tested is confusing, frustrating’
Prostate cancer patient Chris Garner knows the frustration that the current process of testing for the disease can cause.
The 74-year-old from Edinburgh was diagnosed with prostate cancer 11 years ago. At first, he was told that his cancer was simply a consequence of growing older and that it required no further treatment.
He went on to have repeated testing and for ten years was placed under “active surveillance” with his cancer closely monitored for developments. He also used natural therapies, which led him to write a book about his experiences – Prostate Cancer: A Natural Approach.
Last year, Mr Garner was told the tumour had grown and needed further treatment. He has recently completed a two-month course of radiotherapy and is now awaiting the results.
“The process of being tested and treated can be an incredibly confusing time,” he said. “The tests we currently have often leave men with uncertainty, as they have a surprisingly high rate of false positive and false negative results.”
Mr Garner said testing was stressful for patients wanting answers. He said: “A new genetic test could leave men in a more informed position to decide on appropriate treatment with doctors.”