The Cancer Conundrum: To Screen or Not to Screen?

For many cancers, the value of screening is well established. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and early diagnosis is usually linked with better outcomes. For prostate cancer, this topic has been more controversial. That’s because many of the tumors we discover through screening are what we call indolent tumors – prostate cancers that may never lead to symptoms or require treatment in their lifetime.

The men who are diagnosed with slow growing prostate cancers can potentially be harmed by the label, particularly if they undergo treatment and have long-term side effects as a result.

We have a number of different screening tools available to both detect the presence of prostate cancer and distinguish between the sub-types that don’t require treatment versus those that need to be treated as early as possible. One of the most common and least invasive ways to screen for prostate cancer is through Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) testing.

PSA is a blood test that since the early 1990s has been widely used to detect prostate cancers and to follow response to treatment. This blood test is frequently incorporated as part of routine blood testing during annual physical exams for men aged 40 or older. PSA values above a “normal” threshold are associated with a greater risk of prostate cancer.

In 2012, the U.S. Preventative Health Task Force (USPSTF) recommended against routine PSA-based prostate cancer screening for healthy men, regardless of age. This recommendation was based, in large part, on results from the Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian (PLCO) Cancer Screening Trial, a large randomized trial designed and funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to determine the effect of PSA screening on prostate cancer deaths in the United States. At the time, it was determined that there was no benefit to PSA testing.

Contrary to this landmark study, a new study led by Jim Hu, MD at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian found evidence that now demonstrates that PSA testing can help reduce the number of fatal cases of prostate cancer.


Researchers from the Genitourinary Oncology Program at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine will be presenting their findings at the 2016 American Urology Association (AUA) Meeting on Monday, May 9. They discussed their findings in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine in a letter to the editor questioning the results of the PLCO trial due to limitations in the study’s methodology.

According to this letter, more than 80% of the participants in the PLCO control group (who were not supposed to have PSA tested) reported having had PSA testing within three years of starting the trial or during the trial. Thus the trial was not truly studying men who had not been screened in contrast to those who had been screened.

Dr. Jonathan Shoag, urology resident and lead author on the article further explains, “We demonstrate that the PLCO study did not compare a group of men who received PSA screening to a group of men who were not screened, but compared men who were screened to other men who were screened, and we should therefore reconsider any decisions based on the study.”

While PSA testing isn’t perfect (PSA can rise due to other conditions aside from prostate cancer), it can be a very good screening tool when viewed as one piece of the larger puzzle of what’s going on in the body.

Stay tuned for additional blog updates on the topic. Next week, we’ll have continuing coverage on research from the 2016 AUA meeting, including updates on PSA as a prostate cancer screening tool, other ways to detect prostate cancer, and additional biomarkers that can be used to distinguish between aggressive and non-aggressive prostate cancers.

Together, this information allows us to see a clearer picture of what’s going on in the body in order to increase our cure rates and the number of people we’re able to treat effectively, while simultaneously minimizing interventions for those who don’t need them.

Doing Better on Behalf of Bladder Cancer Patients

Scott Tagawa_IMG_5903On Monday, April 18th, Dr. Scott Tagawa presented promising bladder cancer clinical trial results at the 2016 AACR Annual Meeting.

This phase II study of the antibody-drug conjugate (IMMU-132), demonstrated positive results in a group of adults with metastatic urothelial cancer who did not respond to standard chemotherapies or relapsed after receiving several rounds of the standard chemotherapy treatment regimens.

A form of immunotherapy, antibody drug conjugates are a targeted therapy that leverages the capability of monoclonal antibodies to attach to specific targets on cancer cells. By attaching a drug to the monoclonal antibodies, treatments are able to “hitch a ride” into the cancer cells.

“In this study, eighty-four percent of patients were alive at the nearly one-year mark, compared with an average overall survival of 4-9 months in similar patients who received chemotherapy regimens,” says Dr. Tagawa.

Some side effects were reported, including neutropenia, a low count of a type of white blood cells (neutrophils) in the blood and some diarrhea, but less than would be expected with the free form of the parent drug irinotecan. Irinotecan is a chemotherapy drug mostly used for the treatment of colon cancer. In the body, it is metabolized and breaks down into SN38, which is a more potent molecule. Because of its potency, it would be too toxic to deliver SN38 into the body in general.

IMMU-132 is a drug in which SN38 is linked to an antibody which recognizes Trop2. Trop2 is a protein in the surface of several different types of cells and is over-expressed on many common cancer types, including urothelial cancer. Since the drug shuttles SN38 preferentially into tumors, patients benefit from the potent drug without as many side effects as general chemotherapy.

This drug is also known as Sacituzumab Govitecan, and has already received FDA-breakthrough designation for the treatment of patients with triple negative breast cancer.

The Weill Cornell Medicine clinical trial continues to enroll patients with advanced urothelial cancers (tumors arising from the bladder, renal pelvis, and ureters). For more information about eligibility and enrollment, click here.

“Moonshots” and More: How We’re Developing Personal Cancer “Cures” through Precision Medicine

In President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, he emphasized the “moonshot” need to cure cancer. At Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, we are actively working towards that goal.

420_Dr. David Nanus with patient Irene Price 8 x 12
Irene Price and Dr. David Nanus, Chief, Hematology and Medical Oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine

Through our use of gene sequencing and precision medicine, we are transforming the way cancer is characterized and treated. Using a multidisciplinary approach and the EXaCT-1 test, here at the Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program, we are able to sequence the genes of advanced stage cancer patients. We can then narrowly tailor personalized treatment regimens based on the genetic makeup of a patient’s tumor which indicates whether a cancer is likely to respond to a particular treatment therapy.

Irene Price came to Dr. David Nanus, Chief of the Division of Hematology and Medical Oncology, with metastatic bladder cancer, and had more than 20,000 genes sequenced with the EXaCT-1 test. Dr. Nanus and his colleagues determined that the reason she wasn’t responding to prior treatment rested in a specific genetic mutation within her tumor. As a result, the team was able to prescribe a personalized treatment regimen – one more often used in the treatment of breast cancer.

The results were life changing. It caused her cancer to completely disappear. According to Price, “I’ve had college graduations that I wouldn’t have had, weddings that I wouldn’t have had, and the birth of great grandchildren that I wouldn’t have had.”

Learn more about our personalized approach to cancer care in a two-part series on NY1:

Part 1: “Gene Sequencing Effort Helps Pinpoint Cancer Treatments”

Part 2: “Tailored Cancer Treatments Fit Doctors’ New Approach”

To make an appointment with one of our clinicians, please call 646-962-2072.