A new study has found that MRI scans are more accurate at diagnosing prostate cancer in men than blood tests. This could pave the way for a national screening programme for men over the age of 50, which men’s health campaigners have been calling for to address the gender imbalance in the cancer mortality rate.

Presently, the standard screening for prostate cancer is a blood test, but this is considered too unreliable for a national screening programme, the BBC reports. However, the 15-minute MRI scan has shown in trials to pick up cancers that are missed by the blood test. It is hoped that within five to ten years, this will lead to a national screening programme.

About 52,000 men per year are diagnosed with prostate cancer, which leads to 12,000 deaths. This is a much higher mortality rate than many other developed countries. The new research was led by University College London, and the results were published in the journal BMJ Oncology. 

Prof Caroline Moore, consultant urologist UCLH and chief investigator of the study at University College London, said: “Our results give an early indication that MRI could offer a more reliable method of detecting potentially serious cancers early, with the added benefit that less than 1% of participants were ‘over-diagnosed’ with low-risk disease.” 

The trial involved 303 men between the ages of 50 and 75, who underwent both a blood test and an MRI scan. It found that the scans indicated prostate cancer in 48 men, of whom 29 required further treatment. In contrast, the blood tests returned a negative result for over half of the men who had prostate cancer.

The prostate gland is a small organ located in the pelvis, and is a part of the male reproductive system. As men get older the prostate gland may become enlarged, which causes problems with urination. However, the early signs and symptoms of prostate cancer may be missed, so there is a danger that it can spread to other parts of the body.

Simon Grieveson, assistant director of research at Prostate Cancer UK, said: “When a man’s prostate cancer is caught early, it’s very treatable. Sadly, more than 10,000 men each year are diagnosed too late, when their cancer has already spread.”

He added: “MRI scans have revolutionised the way we diagnose prostate cancer, and it’s great to see research into how we might use these scans even more effectively.”

“These results are extremely exciting, and we now want to see much larger, UK-wide studies to understand if using MRI as the first step in getting tested could form the basis of a national screening programme.”

Prostate cancer is treatable through surgery, radiotherapy, or brachytherapy. However, these treatments can have unpleasant side effects, including pain in the pelvic area, discomfort when urinating, and erectile dysfunction. These can be treated with medication and men who are experiencing difficulties should talk to their medical team.

Sexual problems may resolve themselves over time, or they may improve with treatment such as Eroxon Stimgel.