Prostate test 'public health disaster': discoverer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The most commonly used tool for detecting prostate cancer, routine PSA screening, has become “a hugely expensive public health disaster,” its discoverer said on Wednesday.

Dr. Richard Ablin of the University of Arizona joined the ongoing debate over the blood test, saying the screening procedure is too costly and ineffective.

“I never dreamed that my discovery four decades ago would lead to such a profit-driven public health disaster,” Ablin wrote in a commentary for The New York Times.

Ablin said that as Congress searches for ways to cut costs in the U.S. health care system, a significant savings could come from changing the way PSA is used.

“The test’s popularity has led to a hugely expensive public health disaster,” he wrote.

He said the annual bill for PSA screening is at least $3 billion, with much of it paid for by Medicare and the Veterans Administration.

“As I’ve been trying to make clear for many years now, PSA testing can’t detect prostate cancer and, more important, it can’t distinguish between the two types of prostate cancer -- the one that will kill you and the one that won’t,” he wrote.

“Instead, the test simply reveals how much of the prostate antigen a man has in his blood.”

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men worldwide after lung cancer, killing 254,000 men a year.

PSA is a protein made only by prostate cells, and levels can shoot up as a prostate tumor proliferates. But levels can also rise as the prostate naturally enlarges with age.

A high PSA reading is usually followed by a biopsy, which is a sample of the prostate tissue taken and examined for signs of a tumor.


Doctors have routinely recommended PSA tests to men over 50 in the belief that early diagnosis and aggressive treatment for any cancer is better than standing by and doing nothing.

But prostate cancer can often be a slow-growing tumor and men will often die of something else before the cancer becomes dangerous.

Prostate cancer treatments, including surgery or radiation, can cause incontinence and erectile dysfunction in about a third of patients. Many men also experience bowel problems.

Citing recent studies and reversals of some early screening proponents, Ablin said the medical community is slowly turning against PSA screening.

“So why is it still used? Because drug companies continue peddling the tests and advocacy groups push ‘prostate cancer awareness’ by encouraging men to get screened,” Ablin wrote.

Ablin said PSA testing does have a place, after treatment for prostate cancer and for men with a family history of prostate cancer.

“Testing should absolutely not be deployed to screen the entire population of men over the age of 50, the outcome pushed by those who stand to profit,” Ablin wrote.

He urged the medical community to “confront reality and stop the inappropriate use of PSA screening.”

Editing Maggie Fox and Xavier Briand