About 1.4 million cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed worldwide every year. Screening for prostate cancer can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment, though it’s not without its drawbacks.

Yet men who don’t get screened, whether because of insufficient access to healthcare or limited time and resources to wait for offsite lab results, are at a disadvantage.

A portable screening tool is the subject of new research, which indicates that it’s feasible to assess a person’s likelihood of having prostate cancer with a blood sample and a 20-minute test.

Researchers reported that their lateral flow test (like the kind used for home pregnancy tests or rapid COVID-19 tests) and battery-powered Cube reader can detect levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in a blood sample.

The ability to rapidly screen for prostate cancer would cut days or weeks off the time between screening, diagnosis, and treatment and reduce the number of doctor visits needed. There’s even been some suggestion that this type of screening tool might be found in a community setting such as a barbershop.

It’s important to keep in mind that testing done outside of an official medical facility should be verified by a urologist or specialist before taking any other action.

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The prostate is a walnut-sized gland next to the bladder in people assigned male at birth. It surrounds the urethra and produces fluid that’s part of semen. About 13 percent of American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and 2 to 3 percent will die from it.

It’s estimated that 45 to 70 percent of the recent decline in deaths from prostate cancer is due to screening. PSA is already widely used to detect prostate cancer, but samples must usually be sent to an offsite lab to measure PSA levels.

There are often no symptoms of prostate cancer in its early stages, hence the need for screening. As this type of cancer advances, some possible symptoms include:

  • blood in urine or semen
  • pain in hips, back, or chest
  • weakness or numbness in legs or feet
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • erectile dysfunction

With screening tests, however, prostate cancer can be detected before any of these symptoms of advanced cancer appear.

At this time, the recommendation from the American Cancer Society is that men make a decision with their doctor about whether to undergo screening for prostate cancer.

When this conversation takes place depends on your age and risk status. If one of the following factors applies to you, you should discuss a screening with your doctor:

  • You’re 50 years old and have an average risk of prostate cancer and are in generally good health.
  • You’re 45 years old and have a high risk of developing prostate cancer. This includes African American men and men who have a first-degree relative (father or brother) who received a diagnosis before the age of 65.
  • You’re 40 years old, and your risk is even higher due to having more than one first-degree relative diagnosed with prostate cancer at an early age.

While catching prostate cancer early means patients can get treatments sooner, screening tests aren’t foolproof. There’s a chance of false negative or false positive results because PSA levels can be affected by other factors. PSA is a protein made in the prostate. Higher PSA levels mean a higher likelihood that prostate cancer is present, but it’s not an exact threshold.

These are some of the reasons you may have higher PSA levels even if you don’t have cancer:

  • enlarged prostate
  • higher age
  • infection or inflammation of prostate
  • ejaculation

Only about 25 percent of men with a PSA level of 4 to 10 (borderline range) actually have prostate cancer, and sometimes men with prostate cancer will have a PSA level below 4.

When screening tests show higher PSA levels, you still need further testing or a prostate biopsy before your doctor can make an accurate diagnosis.

In their proof-of-concept report, researchers outlined how the rapid test and Cube reader would be used:

  1. Collect the patient’s information.
  2. Take a blood sample from a finger prick.
  3. Add a drop of blood to the test strip.
  4. Gold nanoshells magnify detectability of PSA in the sample.
  5. In 20 minutes, the battery-powered Cube reader (only 1.6 inches cubed) reports the level of prostate specific antigen in the sample.

If people can be screened for prostate cancer in a short amount of time in a convenient location within their communities, regardless of what kind of healthcare they have access to, a diagnosis may be confirmed more quickly.

This efficient, lab-free method is just a first step though. If this initial screening detects elevated PSA, the next step is to make an appointment with a urologist, who will then most likely repeat the test to confirm a diagnosis before suggesting a course of treatment.

Being older, having a family history of prostate cancer, and being African American are all associated with greater risk of prostate cancer. African American men are especially at risk because they tend to develop prostate cancer younger and are more than twice as likely to die from the disease.

There has been a recent decline in the rate of prostate cancer screening, especially among African American men ages 40 to 54. One possible reason is this population has less access to healthcare and is less likely to get regular checkups.

Even after prostate cancer is diagnosed, rapid portable tests can be used to check PSA levels and monitor the disease’s progression.

Recent research shows the effectiveness of the prototype device and concept of rapid screening, but there are limitations to screening in general. As noted above, PSA levels can vary for reasons other than the presence of cancer.

There are also other methods for detecting prostate cancer, including the digital rectal exam and rectal ultrasound. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is another tool used to detect prostate cancer. A targeted biopsy is also commonly used by many urologists to detect the cancer.

Researchers are also looking into whether men with certain genetic markers should be screened for prostate cancer at a younger age. For example, the breast cancer gene, BRCA, which men can carry, predisposes men to prostate cancer. This means if you have a known family history of BRCA, you should consider being screened for prostate cancer earlier.

There are currently several clinical trials underway related to screening for prostate cancer, a few of which are targeted at helping high risk African American men make decisions about prostate cancer screening.

Researchers are looking into ways to offer men rapid on-site screening for prostate cancer. A newly developed device, currently at the prototype stage, can test for prostate-specific antigen levels in a blood sample in about 20 minutes, without the need for an offsite lab.

This could potentially benefit African American men who are at higher risk of developing prostate cancer but who are less likely to get screened.