The Failed Medical Experiment: PSA Screening for Prostate Cancer

The Failed Medical Experiment: PSA Screening for Prostate Cancer

A Case of an Elevated PSA

Jim Smith is a 55-year old athlete and outdoorsman, who runs marathons and camps out. He was not at all worried about prostate cancer until he saw the Larry King Live Show endorsing PSA screening for prostate cancer.  Larry King played clips showing celebrity endorsements from Colin Powell, Joe Torre, Don Imus, Charlton Heston,  Jerry Lewis, Arnold Palmer, Rudy Giuliani,  John Kerry, Bob Dole,  Norman Schwarzkoff, John McEnroe and Michael Milken all relating personal prostate cancer stories.  Watching all these celebrities urging PSA testing on the Larry King show lured Jim into a local Miami hospital offering free screening for prostate cancer.

Jim's PSA test showed an elevated PSA of 4.7 (normal is less than 4), so Jim was sent over to a local urologist office all set for a needle biopsy of his prostate.

Pioneering Ultrasound Guided Biopsy

Working as an interventional radiologist for many years, I actually pioneered ultrasound guided prostate biopsies, and taught many urologists how to do the procedure.  This procedure involves placing an ultrasound probe into the patient's rectum to image the prostate, and advance a long needle into the prostate gland for the tissue sample. (Repeated a number of times).  As uncomfortable as it sounds, it's really all not that bad.

Seeking a Second Opinion

Thinking the rush to biopsy was a bit hasty, Jim declined, and instead came to my office seeking a second opinion.  After a brief chat, Jim complained of recent urinary symptoms.  Sure enough, his lab findings indicated a simple infection of the prostate gland, which is quite common.

Antibiotics, The Miracle Drug

Inflammation and prostate infection is a common cause of PSA elevation.  The plan was to treat Jim with antibiotics for his prostate infection and repeat the PSA test.  After a few weeks of daily Ciprofloxin, Jim was smiling ear-to-ear because his repeat PSA was back down to 3.8 and his doctors no longer advised prostate biopsy.

PSA Screening, A 20 Year Failed Medical Experiment

PSA is Prostate Specific Antigen, a protein discovered in 1986, and a marker for prostate cancer and inflammation. This article will show you that PSA screening for prostate cancer is, in fact, a 20 year failed medical experiment which provides little or no benefit in saving lives.

New Studies Provide No Evidence for PSA Screening

Gina Kolata of the New York Times wrote a scathing indictment of PSA screening citing two studies published from March 2009 New England Journal of Medicine, considered the most important studies in the history of men's health, wherein PSA was shown to actually increased mortality. Below is a chart of PSA Screening and Mortality From NEJM PLCO study.

PSA and Mortality

Chart: Courtesy of NEJM PLCO study data, Gina Kolata, NY Times. Note Men screened with PSA (black line) has higher mortality then unscreened men (red line).

The large US study, the PLCO, showed no mortality benefit from PSA screening. (see chart above).  The Europeans, on the other hand, did much better.  Their ERSPC study provided a 20% mortality reduction from PSA screening.  However, this came at a high cost of significant overdiagnosis.  Fifty men were treated for prostate cancer unnecessarily for every life saved. This treatment of surgery, radiation and hormonal castration is associated with erectile dysfunction (ED) and incontinence.

One Million Male Victims – OverDiagnosed and Overtreated Since 1986

Welch reported a very unpleasant finding in the August 2009 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Since the invention of the PSA test in 1986, one million men have been treated for a clinically insignificant prostate cancer that did not require treatment.  These are 1 million male victims, many suffering from side effects of treatment, such as erectile dysfunction and incontinence.

Take a look at the charts below which Welch used to arrive at his conclusions.The upper brown data line shows annual incidence rate of prostate cancer, (the incidence).  The lower chart shows mortality, which was stable at 30,000 deaths per year. Notice the huge spike in detected cases when PSA testing was introduced (red arrow). Notice the INCREASE in Mortality in the lower chart (blue arrow) the same years as a spike in Incidence from PSA testing. The two peaks coincide (vertical green line connects the two charts at the peaks). Granted mortality declines afterwards, from 33,000 per year to 24,000 per year, but at a huge cost.  We  have eradicated 10,000 advanced prostate cancer cases per year in return for a huge price paid in degrading the quality of life for 1 million men overdiagnosed and overtreated for insignificant disease. Below is a chart of prostate cancer incidence and death rates in the US.

Source for above two charts:   Figure 3 and Figure 4 combined, FIGURE 3 Annual Age-adjusted Cancer Incidence Rates among Males and Females for Selected Cancers, United States, 1975– 2005. FIGURE 4 Annual Age-adjusted Cancer Death Rates among Males for Selected Cancers, United States, 1930–2005.

Sept 2009 BMJ and Archives of Internal Med Papers

Another series of papers just released in the British Medical Journal Sept. 24 2009, again criticizes mass PSA screening, advising against it.  Another highly critical article, just published in the Archives on Internal Medicine by Dr Kirsten Howard from the University of Sydney's School of Public Health, showed that PSA Testing is not a major factor in prostate cancer mortality, and "many men with screen-detected prostate cancer are having cancer therapies for clinically insignificant cancers".

Why Doesn't It Work? Where Did We Go Wrong with PSA Screening?

We have known since 1935 with the publication of Arnold Rich's autopsy study that there is a large pool of latent, clinically insignificant prostate cancer in the male population which increases with age.  By the age of fifty, 30-40 per cent of males will harbor a clinically insignificant focus of prostate cancer.  The vast majority succumbs to old age before the prostate cancer bothers them. These prostate cancers are the incidental findings at post mortem exam.

Prostate cancer is a slow growing indolent disease with a 99 percent 5-year survival after diagnosis.  The incidence of latent prostate cancer is estimated to be one half of the male population 65 and over (7 million of the 14 million males), yet there are only 30,000 deaths per year.  This means the average male has a 0.5% chance of dying from prostate cancer, (or a 99.5 chance of dying from other causes, not prostate cancer).

PSA screening programs send the screened patients to trans-rectal ultrasound guided biopsy which finds these latent prostate cancers, many of which should not be treated.  Mainstream conventional treatment involves radical prostatectomy, radiation therapy, or hormonal castration.  The first two are associated with adverse effects of incontinence, and erectile dysfunction. Treatment with androgen blockade, (a form of chemical castration) is associated with increased mortality and osteoporosis.

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