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PSMA stands for Prostate Specific Membrane Antigen, which is a protein (enzyme) that is expressed on the surface of prostate cancer cells (and on a few other cell types). As with many cell surface proteins, you can find ligands that will bind to the protein, and then label these with radioactive isotopes that allow imaging. PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography, and of course, CT stands for Computerized Tomography. When you put these technologies together, you obtain a powerful way to look for prostate cancer that has spread outside the prostate gland. The physics of this (how a positron interacts with an electron, releasing gamma photons at 180 degrees) is very cool, but probably of interest only to the most nerdy. (I made a cloud chamber for my 7th grade science project and my hiking buddy is a nuclear medicine doc who wrote a definitive text on the math/science of his craft…so go figure).
Prior to developing PET agents for prostate cancer, we had standard CT scans and bone scans and we used these to determine whether someone with, for example, a very high PSA or high Gleason score had cancer deposits that had escaped (metastasized) from the prostate. If so, it was felt that putting them through surgery or radiation treatments in an attempt to cure was fruitless and exposed the patient to the unnecessary toxicity risks (impotence, incontinence, rectal damage, etc.) Especially if they had symptoms (e.g. bone pain), hormone treatment reducing testosterone was the best approach. If you had a rising PSA several years after local treatment, the question was always, “Where is the cancer?” but the sensitivity of routine bone and CT scans was quite limited not showing anything until the PSA reached 10 or so at which time ~1/2 of scans would be positive. This figure illustrates the difference in sensitivity. A normal sized lymph node on CT scan (left) is revealed to contain prostate cancer with the PET isotope technique (right). At present, the only approved PET scan in the U.S. is fluciclovine, the “Axumin” scan, which the FDA approved for detecting cancer in patients with rising PSA, but not in newly diagnosed patients. In several studies PSMA-PET CT scans are even more sensitive (about 3x) than Axumin. At the risk of calling up an overused phrase, “this changes everything”.
First, it is clear that many high risk patients we would previously have treated with surgery or radiation to the prostate hoping to cure them might now be found to have prostate cancer deposits outside of the treatment target (prostate or prostate + pelvic lymph nodes). A superb study in this month’s Lancet found that PSMA PET-CT scans provided higher sensitivity (85% vs 38%) and specificity (98% vs 91%) than routine bone and CT scans in high risk patients (PSA >20, Gleason 4+3 or worse). Does this mean we shouldn’t treat the prostate in high risk patients with positive scans? In the study, conventional imaging changed the management in 15% of men, while PSMA PET-CT imaging changed the plans in 28% (p=0.008). Should all high risk patients have a PSMA PET-CT before deciding on treatment? Should the FDA approve this scan quickly? (It is currently available only in research centers and not covered by insurance…read my blog on how to search for such studies or click here).
Second, what about treating a small number of prostate metastases (oligometastatic prostate cancer) in a patient who was treated years ago and now has a rising PSA? Ongoing investigations suggest this might delay the need for hormone therapy in such patients or potentially even cure some of them. But the PSMA PET-CT isn’t perfect. How high do you let the PSA go up before ordering such a scan? – the farther it rises, the more likely the scan will show something, but that gives the cancer more time to spread. A negative scan is no guarantee there aren’t many more foci of a few prostate cancer cells that will eventually show up elsewhere in the body. Is this some version of Whack-a-mole? And how do we define “cure” anyway?? (My personal definition is that you die from something else, regardless of your PSA or scan results).
Finally, since even at research centers the PSMA PET-CT scan may cost you $3,000 or so, is it worth it? It is “free” in the European health care systems, but we all know nothing is free – even if Medicare pays for something it costs society and ultimately must be accounted for in terms of value. Medicare covered PSMA PET-CT’s vs fixing pot holes and bridges? How about finding a treatment for SARS Co-V2 instead? No easy answers, but if you are like me, homebound as a “high risk” senior citizen, plenty to think about. Wash your hands, wear your mask, and enjoy your grandkids on Zoom!