Recently, all sorts of sensational headlines popped up about:
Semen test may improve prostate cancer detection
Semen test for prostate cancer helps diagnose early warning signs
Prostate cancer accurately identified with semen test
Prostate cancer diagnosis may be more accurate with semen test
Semen test is latest diagnostic prostate cancer tool and may be best
Whoa. Look at the phrases I highlighted. Slow down. What, precisely, has been found?
I asked one of our contributors, Dr. Richard Hoffman, who tracks prostate cancer research, to comment. He wrote:
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is not a very good cancer screening test. Most men with an elevated PSA level do not have cancer. Up to 40% of cancers detected by PSA are considered overdiagnosed–they would never cause any problems during a man’s lifetime. Investigators are fervently seeking a better biomarker for prostate cancer–one that would not have so many false positives and one that could predict which cancers are potentially dangerous and need to be treated. Now investigators from the University of Adelaide report “the presence of certain molecules in seminal fluid indicates not only whether a man has prostate cancer, but also the severity of the cancer.” However, the news release from the University and all of the news stories we saw are remarkably devoid of details. Although we’re told that investigators evaluated microRNA in 60 men, readers are left to assess the value of these new biomarkers only through the ambiguous statement that “these microRNA were surprisingly accurate in detecting cancer.” The most telling comment is that investigators are next going to validate their results in a larger patient group–implying that the test is a long way from being clinically useful.
Neither Dr. Hoffman nor I – through our respective university libraries – were able to access the full manuscript – only the abstract in the journal Endocrine-Related Cancer. And given how much of the news coverage seemed to echo and pull quotes from the University of Adelaide news release, we don’t think many journalists tracked down the published work either.
In our view, it’s far too early to speculate what all of those headlines above speculated.
I still haven’t given up hope on someday reviewing not only health care news stories but also health care-related news releases. This may be another prime example of research news disseminated to the public via news release – not by independent journalistic vetting.
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