Cancer test while you get a haircut?

Feb 2022

Low cost, portable PSA tests could soon be a reality, thanks to a breakthrough by scientists from Cornell University in the USA

The idea of getting a 15-minute prostate cancer test at the same time as a haircut might sound unlikely. 

But it could soon be a reality, thanks to a breakthrough by scientists from Cornell University in the US, who have developed a portable, rapid version of the PSA test – the blood check for markers that can suggest a man has prostate cancer. 

PSA testing currently involves sending blood samples off to a lab to check for raised levels of prostate specific antigen, a marker that can point to a tumour forming, but which can also be due to non-cancerous conditions involving inflammation or infection of the prostate gland. 

But since the test is normally done at a doctor’s surgery, uptake is generally very low among men who have no obvious symptoms and feel fine – even though they may be in the early stages of prostate cancer. 

Researchers behind the new mobile test hope to be able to use it in places where man regularly gather – such as barber shops. And rather than face an anxious week-long wait, they will be able to get the results before they even leave. 

The Cornell team condensed the same bulky testing process used by doctors down into a handy kit that can be used anywhere. The kit comes with a test strip, similar to those found in at-home Covid-19 antigen or pregnancy tests, and users simply draw a tiny drop of blood using a miniature needle to puncture the skin on their finger. 

The blood is applied to the test strip and within 15 minutes two lines appear. 

A separate cube-shaped ‘reader’ device then scans the lines and a computer-powered sensor inside it measures the intensity of the colours. This allows the gadget to calculate the PSA concentration in the blood and display a reading. 

The more PSA there is in the blood sample, the brighter the lines appear. 

Researchers stress the portable test kit is not meant to provide a full diagnosis of prostate cancer but act as a prompt for men to undergo further investigation. 

Scientists who developed the prototype recently published results showing its effectiveness in the journal Current Research in Biotechnology. The hope is that by having a test which can be used in community settings, many more cases of prostate cancer will be detected early enough to save more lives. 

One major target group is the Afro-Caribbean male population. As one of the main ethnic groups at higher risk of the disease, they are more likely to be diagnosed with more advanced prostate cancer.

Scientists predict the tests will be easy to mass produce and will sell for just a few dollars each. But it’s likely to be a couple of years at least before the technology is proven and production swings into action. 

In the UK, there is no PSA-based national screening programme for prostate cancer as the test is not deemed accurate enough. However, men can still request a PSA test from their GP if they are worried about the disease or have symptoms. 

SOURCE: Highly portable quantitative screening test for prostate-specific antigen at point of care. Current Research in Biotechnology, Nov 12, 2021. 

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