- PROSTATE SPECIFIC ANTIGEN
PSA is the most widely used test for detecting prostate cancer
today. It was developed originally to establish if a prostatectomy had successfully
removed all traces of cancer with the prostate gland. The concept being that there
should be no PSA detectable with the test as it was developed at the time. The
movement to use it as a diagnostic tool as an indicator of the presence of prostate
cancer followed shortly.
is simple to do. A small sample of blood is taken, usually from a vein in the
arm, and is tested for the presence of PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen). The
laboratory testing the blood will come back with a number, which usually reflects
the level of PSA in the blood in nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). A nanogram
is one thousand millionth of a gram so the quantities measured are very small.
enzyme labeled PSA was initially thought to be formed only by the prostate gland
- hence "prostate specific". It is not in fact prostate specific and very small
quantities of the enzyme are produced by other glands - and even by women. The
production of the PSA enzyme by other organs can cause problems with the interpretation
of Ultra-Sensitive PSA tests discussed below.
IS NOT CANCER SPECIFIC
PSA test is also not prostate cancer specific. An elevated PSA reading
does not always mean that the man being tested has prostate cancer. Quite the
contrary. Only about one third of men who have an elevated PSA level (usually
over 4.0 ng/ml) will be found to have a positive biopsy result and be diagnosed
with prostate cancer. Two thirds of the men will not be diagnosed. This point,
often misunderstood, gives rise to what is referred to as "PSA anxiety" with men
having multiple biopsies in an effort to find a disease which may not exist. Ralph
Valle, a long time prostate cancer activist, wrote a short piece which is worth
reading in this context. Read it here WHAT'S
NEW ? A SHORT ESSAY ON PSA.
LEVELS 4.0 NG/ML OR HIGHER
the PSA test was approved and introduced in 1990 a reading of higher than 10 ng/ml
was regarded as one that should be investigated further. This figure was subsequently
reduced to 4.00 ng/ml, which is regarded as "normal" in most countries and by
most medical people. In the US there was a move to reduce the limit to 2.60 ng/ml
or even to 1.25 ng/ml, and some doctors use these levels to define 'normality'.
On the other hand, one leading expert physician feels that any PSA result under
12 ng/ml is not worth being concerned about, unless there are other symptoms.
Another theory is that since there is a correlation between age and PSA levels
- they tend to be higher in older men - a table of 'normal' levels linked to age
should be used. Between 25% and 35% of men with a PSA reading of between 4.00
ng/ml and 10.00 ng/ml will be found to have prostate cancer. In the majority of
cases the elevated reading will be due to some other cause.
LEVELS BELOW 4.0 NG/ML
took some time before a study was completed to establish the levels of prostate
cancer in men with a PSA level below the "normal" of 4.0 ng/ml. This
study concluded "Biopsy-detected prostate cancer, including high-grade
cancers, is not rare among men with PSA levels of 4.0 ng per milliliter
or less — levels generally thought to be in the normal range."
this study of almost 3,000 men, 15.2% (442 men) were found to have prostate cancer
on biopsy. Four of the men had Gleason Scores of 8 (two of these men with a PSA
of less than 1.0 ng/ml) and three had a Gleason Score of 9. These low PSA/high
Gleason Score variants are particularly dangerous as they are missed with PSA
tests and are usually diagnosed at a late stage when symptoms develop. Some may
have been discovered earlier by way of a positive DRE (Digital Rectal Examination)
had this been done.
study was published in May 2004 and can be downloaded here (it is a large pdf
OF PROSTATE CANCER AMONG MEN WITH A PROSTATE-SPECIFIC ANTIGEN LESS THAN 4.0 NG/ML
the main results of the study, tabulated:
of men diagnosed
0.60 - 1.0
is no upper limit to the scale of measurement of PSA and it is not possible to
say what the range of "normal" readings is. An Australian doctor reported
a patient with a PSA over 300 ng/ml who was not diagnosed with prostate cancer
and whose PSA level fell back to under 4.0 ng/ml after treatment with antibiotics.
PSA readings of over 100 ng/ml are not uncommon. 50 of the 1,000 stories on this
site at April 2012 are from men who had readings over this level. Even higher
readings - over 1,000 ng/ml - are not unheard of. Twelve of the fifty "high
level" men on the site had PSA levels over this figure - the highest being
over 7,000 ng/ml. If you wish to go directly to the stories click on the link
SURVIVOR STORIES in
the header of this page.
reported case (not on this site but in the PCRI INSIGHTS
NEWSLETTER - December 1999 vol. 2, no. 4) concerned a man in the
United States who had a PSA reading of 3,552 ng/ml in 1991 which climbed to 12,600
ng/ml in 1992. In 1999 his PSA was 109 ng/ml after treatment and he was still
working as a chief pilot on the world's largest American cargo airline. He retired
high PSA numbers are usually associated with aggressive forms of the disease or
late stage diagnoses.
RESULTS NOT COMPARABLE
are many commercial PSA assays - one study suggests 30 or more, another compared
24 different assays. Different methods and techniques are used by these various
tests to measure PSA. Some are immunoradiometric, some are enzyme immunoassays
and at least one is a chemiluminescent immunoassay.
results produced by these different assays vary considerably. Although all manufacturers
agreed some years ago to calibrate their equipment to produce comparable results
(the Stanford Protocol), this agreement was voluntary and is rarely adhered to.
It does not apply to so called free PSA tests or to ultra-sensitive tests (both
of these subsidiary tests are dealt with below).
of the key measurements in the use of PSA results is to track changes. It is therefore
very important to ensure that all tests are run by the same laboratory using the
same assay equipment. If this is not done, the results may not be directly comparable.
It can be very difficult to ensure that comparable results are produced because
laboratories change assay methods quite frequently, often driven by cost issues,
and although they claim to tell physicians of these changes, the information is
rarely given clearly to men using the services. In the event of an unusual change
in PSA levels it is always worth checking to see if there has been a change in
assay and, if there has, to establish a new base.
RANGES OF ACCURACY
in ideal conditions it may be possible to measure PSA levels consistently, most
laboratories will only guarantee accuracy to within 80%. There are many reasons
for this. For one thing, it is extremely difficult to measure very precisely either
nanograms of PSA or milliliters of blood without a degree of error - think of
the variances in gas (petrol) that is delivered on a very cold morning or a hot
noon from the same pump. The dial on the pump will register the same volume of
the liquid, but you certainly won't be getting an identical amount in your tank.
other, and more pertinent reason is what are termed systematic errors. These arise
where, for example, the instruments have not been properly calibrated or maintained;
where the assay material used is past its best 'use by' date; where the staff
in the laboratory are not properly supervised. Think of photographs printed by
different photo-shops before the widespread use of digital cameras and what a
variance there was in results from, say a Fuji shop or a Kodak one. Nowadays,
many people who have home inkjet photo printers are disappointed by some of the
results with the color of the image on the computer screen being vastly different
from the printed picture. The level and quality of inks and paper can make a difference,
as can the lack of calibration of the screen. All these systematic errors will
affect the results to a greater or lesser degree and account for some of the variances
reported. In times of economic pressures there may be greater variances as shortcuts
may be taken, cheaper and less accurate material purchased, staff levels cut back.
all these reasons results should ideally be shown as a range, or with an error
margin. For example, a PSA now stated to be 4.9 ng/ml is most likely the mid point
in a range from 3.92% to 5.88 ng/ml. Given this, a second test with a level of
5.2 ng/ml should not necessarily be taken as an increase in levels because it
falls within the same range as the first test. The same logic would apply to a
second result of 4.2 ng/ml which would not necessarily be a fall in the PSA levels.
from these variances, PSA
levels can be elevated by a number of causes, from infection to physical activities.
For this reason it is very important to try to establish the cause of any elevated
PSA level reported. If the PSA is below 20 ng/ml this should be done before having
The most common causes of an elevated PSA are: prostatitis (an infection
of the prostate); a bladder infection; or BPH (benign prostatic hyperplasia).
This last condition affects most men over 50 years of age and is not deadly. Any
infection should be treated before a second PSA test is carried out. Acute prostatitis
can cause the PSA levels to rise five to seven times the normal level for up to
six weeks or even longer. Both prostatitis and bladder infections are notoriously
difficult to treat. There are various natural
and pharmaceutical products that may reduce the size of a gland and these may
reduce the effect of BPH on the PSA level, as will a TURP
(Trans Urethral Resection Procedure).
It is recommended that blood for
PSA testing should be drawn as early in the day as is convenient and preferably
before eating. Constipation and weightlifting are thought to affect PSA levels
as does virtually anything that disturbs the prostate gland. Some of the major
physical activities which may affect PSA levels and which should be avoided before
drawing the blood are:
Sexual activity: Ejaculation can elevate PSA levels for
up to 48 hours, or possibly 72 hours, after it has taken place.
One of the curious aspects of PSA testing is that it is
very rare for this very common cause of variation of PSA levels to be mentioned.
If, for example, a test is ordered for cholesterol the doctor will warn their
patient that they must fast for 12 hours to ensure the test result is valid. On
presenting at the phlebotomist they will be asked if they have eaten anything
in the past 12 hours. Yet very few, if any, doctors or phlebotomists will ask
men about to have a PSA test about their sexual activities.
DRE (Digital Rectal Examination). Although doctors often
carry out the DRE before drawing blood, they should reverse these procedures
Cycling or Motor Cycling: This can increase levels up to
three times for up to a week, depending on how strenuous the cycling is. This
includes an exercise bicycle
Alcohol and Coffee: Both can irritate the prostate and should
be avoided for 48 hours prior to blood being drawn
There are many studies that try to evaluate the effect of activities and physical
conditions. One such study in Germany concluded that there were seasonal variances
in PSA levels and other studies have pointed to the possibility of certain foods
and drinks also affecting results.
PSA levels can also vary significantly for no obvious reason. One published study
shows that of the 295 men in the study who
had a first reading of less than 10 ng/ml and
who then had two PSA readings within 90 days, only
6% of these men had two identical readings; of the remaining men 46%
had a increase or the same PSA on second reading, 54% had a decrease. The largest
differences were a reduction of 5.3 ng/ml and an increase of 7.5 ng/ml. The differences
are summarized in this table:
compared to first test
- 1.0 and + 1.0 ng/ml
+/- 1.0 and +/- 2.0 ng/ml
+/- 2.0 and +/- 3.0 ng/ml
Greater than +/- 3.0
The study stated that these differences might be the result of the mixed effect
of random errors, batch inequalities, so-called "physiologic variations" (which
I take to mean that no-one has a clue as to why there was such variance!)
and transient effects of concomitant prostatitis. .
(BENIGN PROSTATIC HYPERPLASIA)
prostate gland that is enlarged with BPH
(benign prostatic hyperplasia) will also produce more PSA than a normal sized
gland. There are various formulae used to try to relate the amount of PSA
expressed to the volume of the gland.
One of the simplest calculations, suggested by a leading oncologist, is to apply
a factor of 0.066 to the gland volume, the resultant figure representing the BPH
component. Deduct this from the total PSA and the balance is the 'normal' reading.
This is not a very accurate calculation, if
only because it is difficult to calculate the volume of the gland accurately.
of inaccuracy and variances in PSA results it is
important to have a series of PSA tests done to establish the overall movement
in the levels before making any treatment decision.
Many men monitor their PSA levels for some years watching for any upward trend
in the numbers. Typically, PSA
generated by activities or conditions other than prostate cancer activity will
tend to fluctuate up and down, whilst PSA associated with prostate cancer will
tend to increase at an ever greater speed. One
of the key issues in looking at these series of numbers is the doubling time of
the PSA numbers - referred to in the prostate cancer shorthand as PSADT. Jon Nowick
has prepared a
that calculates doubling time and graphs PSA results. There is
more about this issue - and some interesting illustrations of just how variable
PSA readings can be in my PSA
- 28 DAY EXPERIMENT.
study done in 2003 in
which nearly one thousand men had five consecutive PSA tests over a four-year
period shows how PSA levels can fluctuate. About one fifth of these men had elevated
PSA levels at some time during this period. Subsequent testing of the same men
a year or more later indicated that the PSA levels for half of the men had returned
to normal. You can read a report on this study at
TEST FOR PROSTATE CANCER SHOWN TO HAVE NORMAL FLUCTUATION
most important point is that no decision to treat should be made on the basis
of one isolated PSA reading. Elevated PSA numbers should always be checked by
having a second test in case there is an error.
a PSA result is between 4 and 10 ng/ml, and provided there has been no treatment,
it is suggested that a second test should be run - the so-called fPSA, PSA II
or Free PSA test. This doesn't mean that there is no cost. It refers to the amount
of what is referred to as "unbound" PSA. The
underlying theory regarding fPSA being that the less fPSA that is found, the greater
the probability of prostate cancer being the cause of an elevated PSA level. The
result of this test is usually shown as a percentage of the total PSA measured.
The risk of cancer being present varies in inverse proportion to the percentage
shown. There are many estimates as to what constitutes a level of fPSA that requires
further investigation because it may be prostate cancer related. The table below
shows one such set of probabilities:
of PCa %
the higher the percentage, the less chance there is of the PSA being caused by
prostate cancer. A fPSA of over 10% would mean that the most likely cause of the
elevated PSA is not prostate cancer: a fPSA of under 10% is more strongly correlated
with prostate cancer. There are some studies which show that the fPSA test may
be valid for readings between 2.5 ng/ml and 20 ng/ml. There are also studies that
show that infection or disease and BPH can impact on fPSA levels and render them
of less value.
treatment is completed (especially where the treatment choice is surgery), an
ultra-sensitive PSA test is often used. It is important to understand why there
can be variations in these test results that may have nothing to do with prostate
cancer returning. This short piece - ULTRA-SENSITIVE
PSA may give a good basic
understanding of the issues and why a study published in November 2011 concluded:
between prostate specific antigen doubling time calculated using ultrasensitive
vs traditional prostate specific antigen values is poor. Ultrasensitive prostate
specific antigen doubling time is often significantly more rapid than traditional
prostate specific antigen doubling time, potentially overestimating the risk of
clinical recurrence. Until the significance of ultrasensitive prostate specific
antigen doubling time is better characterized, the decision to proceed with salvage
therapy should not be based on prostate specific antigen doubling time calculated
using ultrasensitive prostate specific antigen values."