Diagnosing prostate cancer could be revolutionised thanks to a pioneering British study that aims to catch the disease early.
The research could pave the way for a national screening programme that saves lives and spares thousands from unnecessary invasive treatment.
Scientists will be testing a method of diagnosis that uses MRI scans and advanced blood and urine tests.
If successful, all men over 45 could be tested early in the same way that all women are offered mammograms to test for breast cancer.
Prostate cancer is the most common type in men and one in eight will develop it in their lifetime. The disease kills 11,800 men in the UK each year.
The Daily Mail is campaigning to end needless prostate cancer deaths through better treatment and greater awareness.
Current diagnosis methods – a blood test and a painful internal investigation – are deemed unreliable. The tests often miss deadly tumours and can even lead to unnecessary treatment for benign growths.
The new methods – to be tested by University College London and Imperial College London – will be able to detect tiny particles of tumour. The scientists aim to show that this approach is far more effective.
The new technique would also be able to measure how likely it is that healthy men would develop prostate cancer. Those with a high risk would be encouraged to have regular MRI scans while those with a low risk would have the scans less frequently.
Over the next few months researchers will recruit up to 1,500 men to take part in the study.
Lead researcher Professor Mark Emberton, from University College London, said: ‘We will be testing if the MRI can be used for screening men and we hope that it will detect serious cancers earlier that are currently missed.
‘If we can detect cancers earlier and more reliably with a non-invasive test, this could help to improve the survival rates.’
Until now, there has been no reliable method that accurately detects harmful tumours.
This means that the cancer is often detected late – when it has already spread to other tissue and organs. By the time men experience symptoms such as frequent or painful urination, the cancer has likely been there some time.
Figures released in February showed the number of prostate cancer deaths had overtaken breast cancer deaths for the first time – partly due to late diagnosis.
Currently, men suspected of having prostate cancer are offered a PSA blood test, followed by a painful biopsy and then, if they are lucky, an MRI scan.
But recent research has shown that MRI scans are much more effective at identifying the most aggressive tumours.
Unfortunately, researchers believe it will be at least ten years before the scans are available on the NHS as part of a screening programme. They will have to carry out several large-scale studies to prove the scans save lives and are cost-effective.
The first study is being funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.
Dr Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of clinical research, said: ‘Providing men with an accurate diagnosis is one of the biggest challenges in prostate cancer. Current tests are blunt and unreliable when it comes to helping doctors decide what course of action is best.
‘Too many men are treated for cancers that would never have caused them harm and some cancers are missed altogether. The many hundreds of men who will take part in this clinical study will be helping to advance our understanding of prostate cancer.’
Karen Stalbow, of the charity Prostate Cancer UK, said the impact of these types of MRI scans – known as multiparametric MRI scans – was the ‘biggest leap forward we’ve seen in prostate cancer diagnosis in decades’.
She added: ‘It has increased the accuracy of detecting harmful cancers, whilst reducing the need for some men to have a biopsy altogether.’