Page last updated at 23:01 GMT, Monday, 18 May 2009 00:01 UK

Hope of fast prostate cancer test

A prostate cancer cell
Prostate cancer kills 10,000 men in the UK each year

A three-minute test for prostate cancer is being developed by scientists.

The test works by shining a light through a fluid sample to determine levels of a molecule called citrate, which dip in cancer's early stages.

At present the test needs to be carried out on a sample of prostate fluid taken with a needle under local anaesthetic.

A University of Durham team say early results have been highly promising and hope eventually to be able to use a sample of semen for the test.

It could mean that patients do not have to endure a two-week wait for test results following a biopsy.

And it offers hope of a replacement for the unreliable PSA blood test.

This is currently used to give a preliminary diagnosis, but often throws up inaccurate results, leading to unnecessary treatment, which can cause side effects, such as incontinence and impotence.

Initial results of the new test have been highly promising, but work is still at a relatively early stage.

The researchers now plan to assess the test on samples taken from prostate cancer patients from a local hospital.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK.

Each year about 34,000 men are diagnosed with the disease, and about 10,000 die from it.

Diluted samples

The new test, developed in collaboration with the University of Maryland, picks up changes in the wavelength of light as it is shone through diluted samples of prostate fluid.

Professor David Parker
Ultimately, this could provide an accurate method of screening for prostate cancer in men that could be carried out in three minutes
Professor David Parker
University of Durham

This can be used to measure levels of citrate molecules in the sample, which drop significantly during the early stages of prostate cancer.

In theory, a rapid result could allow doctors to begin treatment quickly, when it has most chance of working.

If semen - rather than prostate fluid - could be used this would make the test much more user-friendly, and potentially much more useful.

The Durham team hopes the test could also eventually be used to diagnose other medical conditions associated with poor kidney function.

Lead researcher Professor David Parker said: "It's been a complex process to develop the technique but we're very optimistic about it.

"Ultimately, this could provide an accurate method of screening for prostate cancer in men that could be carried out in three minutes once a biopsy has been obtained from the patient at a hospital outpatient department."

Work required

However, the researchers still have to ensure that the test is accurate over a much larger number of samples.

The Prostate Cancer Charity chief executive John Neate stressed the work was an early stage.

He said faster results would be welcome, but said a biopsy would still be needed to give a definitive diagnosis and to determine whether or not a tumour was aggressive.

"This new test, which involves the insertion of a needle into the prostate under local anaesthetic, is an invasive procedure," he said.

"The researchers hope to able to refine the test by using samples of seminal fluid which may be easier to obtain. If this was the case, it would be easier to see how this test could take a useful place in clinical practice."

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