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Drug to prevent prostate cancer may not suit everyone

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 25, 2003

WASHINGTON - Scientists have discovered that a drug that shrinks enlarged prostates and fights baldness also cuts men's chances of getting prostate cancer, the first success in a long quest to prevent the No. 2 cancer killer of men.

But not every man will want to use the drug, called finasteride. Sexual side effects aside, it may actually increase aggressive tumors in some.

Finasteride is sold under the brand name Proscar to treat the benign prostate enlargement so common with aging and, in a much lower dose, as Propecia to fight baldness.

"Finasteride may not be right for all men," cautioned Dr. Leslie Ford of the National Cancer Institute, which paid for the research.

Prostate cancer strikes 220,000 U.S. men annually and kills almost 29,000. Even limited use of Proscar promises "extraordinary public health potential," said Dr. Ian Thompson of the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio, who led the research.

Proscar alters levels of a male hormone, the testosterone relative DHT. Men with naturally low levels of DHT have less prostate cancer - and black Americans, who have a very high risk of prostate cancer, have high DHT levels.

Researchers tested whether reducing DHT could prevent cancer and found that men who took Proscar daily for seven years had 25 percent fewer cases than men given a dummy pill.

The study of 18,000 older men, originally scheduled to run for another year, was abruptly stopped this month because of the significance of the findings, and the New England Journal of Medicine rushed the results onto its Web site Tuesday.

"This trial proves prostate cancer, at least in part, is preventable," said Dr. Peter Greenwald, NCI's cancer prevention chief, who participated in the study and is cancer-free. "It's a huge step forward."

But some troubling findings have critics questioning just how often Proscar should be used:

- Men who developed prostate cancer while taking Proscar were more likely to have aggressive tumors that doctors term high grade; 6.4 percent of Proscar patients were diagnosed with high-grade tumors, compared with 5.1 percent of men given dummy pills.

No one knows if Proscar alters the prostate's hormone environment in a way that favors growth of more aggressive tumors or if that was a fluke. Some hormonal treatments can make prostate cancer cells initially appear more aggressive.

- Another quirk questions the true value of Proscar's benefit. Researchers diagnosed prostate cancer in four times more placebo patients than expected, partly because every participant got a prostate biopsy even if blood tests for cancer-signaling PSA were normal. Those biopsies often found small, early-stage tumors - and in the real world, wouldn't have been done.

The study didn't test whether taking Proscar helped men live longer, added Dr. Herman Kattlove of the American Cancer Society.

How effective is Proscar? Track 1,000 men starting at age 63, and 60 will get prostate cancer by age 70. Eighteen of the cancers will be high grade. Give those 1,000 men Proscar every day, and only 45 would get prostate cancer - but 22 would be high-grade, the NCI estimated.

Proscar users reported having sexual side effects but had slightly fewer urinary problems that often accompany aging.

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