Behind breast cancer, there is no cancer diagnosis more common than prostate cancer. According to the American Cancer Society's Cancer Facts & Figures report from 2014, some 233,000 men were diagnosed with prostate cancer, with the disease killing 29,480. Overall, prostate cancer is the fifth-leading overall cause of cancer-related death, and the second-leading cause of cancer death in men.
Of course, the mortality statistics of prostate cancer are just one of the challenging aspects of the disease. Prostate cancer is also a major financial burden on individuals and their families. A report from HealthDay via WebMD last year suggested that the price of prostate cancer surgery can range from as low as $10,100 to as much as $135,000. This cost doesn't factor in additional doctor visits, the possibility for cancer-focused therapy over the long term, and the economic costs of lost productivity while undergoing treatment.
But, there could be great news on the horizon with regard to cost savings and potentially saving lives.
Is a new prostate cancer test on the way?
According to a recently published report in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, Dr. Qun "Treen" Huo of the University of Central Florida's NanoScience Technology Center has developed a new, more accurate type of prostate cancer test that could wind up costing a dollar or less!
The current screening method used by physicians to test for prostate cancer is the prostate-specific antigen test, or PSA blood test. PSA is a substance produced by the prostate gland, and in a healthy male, there should be less than four nanograms per milliliter in their blood. Although cancer could be present at any level of PSA, elevated PSA levels are often a telltale sign of increase prostate cancer risk. Website ChoosingWisely estimates the average cost of a PSA blood test at roughly $40.
However, Dr. Huo's test involves using tiny gold nanoparticles (yes, I did just say gold) to detect the potential presence and stage of prostate cancer. When mixed with a few drops of blood serum, specific cancer biomarkers wind up sticking to the gold nanoparticles, causing them to clump together. Researchers then use a nanoparticle-enabled dynamic light scattering assay, known as a NanoDLSay, which then measures the amount of light these nanoparticles throw off. The more light measured, the more advanced the prostate cancer could be.
What's remarkable about Dr. Huo's test is that a small bottle of nanoparticles can be bought for $250, but can be used to conduct about 2,500 tests. This works out to about $0.10 per test. Add in the other materials used to conduct this potentially new prostate cancer screening and the cost works out to a dollar or less -- basically a 98% reduction from the current cost of a PSA blood test.
What's more, Huo's test in pilot studies determined with an accuracy of 90% to 95% that the result was not false-positive. In terms of false-negatives, the confidence was a less impressive 50%, but compared to the false-negative confidence of 20% for the current PSA blood test, it's a substantial improvement. Dr. Huo and her team are working to improve the test's accuracy.
Game-changing new cancer diagnostics making a difference
it's important for both consumers and investors to understand that while these initial pilot studies are incredibly encouraging, they're probably many years away from being a viable commercial option. We'll need to see how well this test translates in a larger percentage of the population, as well as whether Dr. Huo and her team can successfully scale the operation to a much larger size, while also maintaining or improving on the test's accuracy.
But, what I can say with certainty is that we're witnessing something of a revolution in cancer diagnostic tests (beyond just prostate cancer) in recent years.
Exact Sciences (NASDAQ:EXAS), for example, had its DNA-based colon cancer screening tool known as Cologuard approved by the Food and Drug Administration last year. Cologuard works by analyzing a patient's stool, which is sent to the Exact Sciences lab by the patient via specialized collection set. From there, Exact Sciences uses Cologuard to help identify if any DNA abnormalities exist based on cells shed on the stool from the patients' intestinal wall. If DNA abnormalities exist, the patient would be recommended to seek additional tests such as a colonoscopy.
It's a great, noninvasive test that was shown to be 92% accurate in identifying colorectal cancers and 42% accurate in identifying advanced adenomas, or precancerous polyps. The previous noninvasive standard of care was only able to correctly identify 74% of all colorectal cancers, and just 24% of advanced adenomas.
Myriad Genetics (NASDAQ:MYGN) has been another pioneer of advanced cancer biomarker diagnostic tests meant to personalize a potential diagnosis for patients. The company's BRACAnalysis test is designed to analyze whether a female is a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, a faulty gene which greatly increases a woman's chance of developing breast or ovarian cancer. The BRCA gene has been in focus recently with well-known actress Angelina Jolie undergoing a preventative double mastectomy after testing positive for one of the high-risk-factor genes.
But, Myriad isn't done there. Last year, its latest diagnostic, BRACAnalysis CDx, was approved for use as a companion diagnostic to AstraZeneca's (NYSE:AZN) advanced ovarian cancer drug Lynparza. Lynparza is used in patients who've tried three or more lines of chemotherapy and progressed, but is specifically designed for ovarian cancer patients with germline mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2. BRACAnalysis CDx is going to be that personal diagnostic test that will help qualify patients to receive Lynparza.
Moving forward with personalized medicine
The key point, here, is that we're seeing measurable and, in many cases, tangible evidence that cancer detection processes are becoming more refined and accurate. For investors, it means a possible opportunity to latch onto game-changing technology, while for cancer patients, it could mean more personalized treatment capable of improving quality of life, and even helping to extend survival.
We're still just touching the tip of the iceberg in terms of cancer diagnostics, and I look forward to many more years of ongoing improvements.