How Biomarkers are Changing Cancer Detection Forever

May 31, 2019

Prostate cancer is a significant health problem in the United States with about one in nine men diagnosed in his lifetime. The average age of prostate cancer diagnosis being 66. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men (not including skin cancer). It is also one of the leading causes of cancer death among men. Basically, prostate cancer is bad and, unfortunately, common, too.

What is Prostate Cancer?

Prostate cancer is cancer that occurs in the prostate (a small walnut-shaped gland in men that produces the seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm). Prostate cancer begins when cells in the prostate gland start to grow uncontrollably. Prostate cancer oftentimes does not cause symptoms in the early stages. This type of cancer can be small and slow-growing whereas other times it can be fast growing and progress rapidly. Prostate cancer that’s detected early — when it’s still confined to the prostate gland — has a better chance of successful treatment.

How to Detect Prostate Cancer

For the past 25 years, prostate cancer screening and diagnosis has been guided by prostate-specific antigen biomarker levels (PSAs) and prostate exams. PSA tests have been incredibly useful in detecting prostate cancer, but if the level is out of range, it doesn’t definitively determine prostate cancer. Additionally, if a PSA is high and it does indicate prostate cancer it does not identify if the cancer is aggressive, indicating that prostate cancer treatment is necessary, or if it is slow-growing cancer and could be managed conservatively.

Abnormal PSAs often lead to prostate biopsies, as currently, prostate biopsies are the “gold standard” in diagnosing prostate cancer. However, with new biomarker tests emerging, prostate biopsies may not be the only method to detect cancer in the future.

Due to rapid advances in health technology, a new wave of prostate cancer biomarkers has recently emerged—allowing for the testing of urine, serum, or prostate tissue for molecular signs of prostate cancer. If proven successful in large studies, it could change the way prostate cancer is detected, diagnosed and treated. Through biomarkers, prostate cancer detection could be much less invasive in the future.

What “Biomarkers” Really Means

Biomarkers are “chemicals” that can indicate both normal and abnormal processes in the body. Biomarkers can be detected in urine, tissue samples, serum or blood. A few promising new biomarkers on the horizon that may help detect prostate cancer without having to undergo a biopsy.

Urine-based biomarkers. The prostate sheds material that can be detected and measured in the urine. These urine tests detect changes in biomarkers that are specific to prostate cancer. Genetic tests of prostate tissue. Newer tests that look for biomarkers of specific genes can distinguish between slow-growing and more aggressive forms of prostate cancer. Additionally, they may help determine the risk of prostate cancer if there is a family history.
Circulating tumor cells. A new “liquid biopsy” uses a simple blood test to capture and measure circulating prostate tumor cells and their corresponding biomarkers.

Although the future of detection, treatment and prognosis using new biomarker tests is exciting, the standard of care still remains annual prostate exams and PSA tests. Prostate biopsies still prove the standard of care for diagnosing prostate cancer. However, recommendations for prostate cancer testing and decision making are rapidly evolving as clinical trials and large studies are determining the most effective use of these new biomarker tests in prostate cancer. The science and technology are becoming more advanced from prostate cancer treatment to robotic prostatectomy. Don’t be one of the statistics at the beginning of this article. Catch prostate cancer early and get it treated soon.

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