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Prostate cancer checks could prevent one in six deaths from the disease

Laura Donnelly
Actor Ben Stiller has said taking the PSA test saved his life  - AP 

Targeted prostate cancer screening could prevent one in six deaths from the disease, British research suggests. 

Scientists said the technique could also reduce the number of men forced to undergo needless treatment for tumours which were actually harmless. 

Around 130 new prostate cancer cases are diagnosed in the UK every day, with more than 10,000 men a year dying from the disease.

At present, there is no national screening programme for this disease in the UK.

A blood test known as Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA), which detects proteins in the prostate gland, can be used to evaluate a patient's risk of getting the disease, but it does not accurately distinguish between dangerous cancers from harmless ones.

This can lead to both unnecessary operations and missed cancers that are harmful.

The new study, which involved computer simulations, suggests that offering screening - but limiting it to the third of men most at risk - could prevent around one in six deaths. 

Screening all men would save slightly more lives, but would also mean thousands of men being diagnosed and treated for tumours which would never prove fatal. 

Professor Nora Pashayan, of the UCL Applied Health Research and senior author of the study, said: "Prostate cancer is a leading cause of death from cancer in men in the UK, but screening is not performed because the harm of overdiagnosis is thought to outweigh the benefits.

"Our study shows that targeted screening can reduce unnecessary diagnoses while helping to prevent people dying from the disease by enabling earlier detection."

The team from University College London used computer simulations involving a hypothetical cohort of 4.5 million men aged 55 to 69.

They compared the downsides and benefits of introducing four-yearly PSA screening for all men in that age group versus more targeted checks for those at higher genetic risk of prostate cancer.

The researchers concluded that the best approach would be to screen men with a 4-7 per cent risk of getting prostate cancer over the next 10 years. This equates to between a half and a third of men aged between 55 and 69, researchers said, with the proportion rising with age, as risk increases. 

This would prevent around 15 per cent of deaths. 

Screening all men in that age group would mean 20 per cent of deaths being averted but would mean large numbers of unnecessary diagnoses, with nearly one in three cancers detected by screening being harmless.

It would also cost around twice as much, the study found. 

Professor Mark Emberton, of the UCL Medical Sciences, said: "I feel we now have the tools that help us identify men with clinically important disease - applying these tools to the right patient has to be the future.

"That is why this work is so important in helping us know who and when to screen."

Researchers said the findings, published in the journal Plos Medicine, would require improvements in genetic screening services, to identify those at greatest risk.