PSA Screening Critically Questioned

According to Dr. Richard J. Ablin, Research Professor of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in a New York Times Op-Ed article March 10, “Prostate screening is inaccurate and a waste of money.”   Each year 30 million American men undergo testing for  prostate-specific antigen (P.S.A.), a prostate enzyme believed, when elevated, to be a reliable marker for the presence of prostate cancer.  While 16% of men have a lifetime chance of receiving a diagnosis of prostate cancer, they have only 3% chance of dying from the disease. Curious, isn’t it.  The fact is, that infections, over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and simple prostatic enlargement occurring in the majority of older men, can all falsely elevate PSA. Moreover, the test detects only a small percentage of cases, and cannot distinguish between the cancers that kill and the vast majority which grow so slowly that 97% of men will die of something else.

As Dr. Ablin points out, the FDA in approving the procedure relied “heavily” on a study showing that testing could detect 3.8% of prostate cancers.  Not a very large figure.  The result over the past several years has been the subjection of hundreds of thousands of men to radical prostate cancer surgery or radiation, resulting in a tragically high percentage of permanent impotence,  incontinence of urine, or both.

Last year the New England Journal of Medicine published the two largest studies of the screening procedure, one in Europe which showed that 48 men would have to be treated to save one life “That’s 47 men who, in all likelihood, can no longer function sexually or stay out of the bathroom for long.”  The American study showed that over a period of 7 to 10 years, screening did not reduce the death rate in men 55 and over.

Dr. Ablin asks why PSA screening is still used, and answers his own question.”Because drug companies continue peddling the tests and advocacy groups push “prostate cancer awareness” by encouraging men to get screened. Increasing numbers of early screening proponents, like Thomas Stamey, a well-know Stanford urologist came out against routine testing, and the American Cancer Society urged more caution in using the test. Certain subsets of patients, e.g. those with a family history of prostate cancer, those patients after treatment with rising levels should be tested, of course.  But this is quite different from subjecting a normal population to widespread screening, something I have discussed in a previous blog, and re-published in my newsletter, Second Opinions, an interview with Dr. Otis Brawley by Maryann Napoli in 2004!

By the way, the good Dr.  Albin who wrote the Op-Ed article from which this blog borrowed freely, invented the PSA test 40 years ago.

Stay tuned.




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