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ECRI reviews prostate cancer research

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The ECRI Institute’s new review of recent research on the utility of off-label prescription of Finasteride in the prevention of prostate cancer (PDF) presents research and clinical guidelines. Its bibliography and research review may be useful for anyone considering a follow-up to Gina Kolata’s recent New York Times piece on cancer prevention. Finasteride blocks an enzyme that aids the proliferation of prostate cancer cells. It’s used to reduce the size of enlarged prostates and, under the name Propecia, to treat male pattern baldness.

A large trial on finasteride, known as the Prostate Cancer Prevention Trial (PCPT), was published in 2003. The 18,882 men (asymptomatic, with normal PSA levels, 55 years of age or older) enrolled in the trial were randomly assigned to receive either finasteride or placebo for 7 years. … The authors of the trial reported that finasteride reduced the incidence of prostate cancer from 24.4% to 18.4%; however, the incidence of high-grade prostate cancers was 25.6% higher in the finasteride group than the placebo group. The clinical significance of these findings is unclear and has been widely debated.

The impact of prophylactic finasteride on long-term mortality and quality of life was not reported by the PCPT. Two models forecasting the impact of finasteride on mortality in participants in the PCPT were published. Grover et al. predicted that for every 1,000 men treated with finasteride, a total of 20 life-years (0.02 years per individual) would be saved, and Lotan et al. predicted that men treated with finasteride would, on average, gain 1.7 months of life.

The ECRI release was prompted by Kolata’s piece in The New York Times which questions why drugs that have been proven to prevent cancer are not being taken while many potentially harmful (and useless) supplements are. Kolata mentioned the Finasteride case in addition to similar examples involving breast cancer prevention drugs.

According to its Web site, the nonprofit ECRI Institute “dedicates itself to bringing the discipline of applied scientific research to healthcare to discover which medical procedures, devices, drugs, and processes are best to enable improved patient care.” The acronym ECRI has been adopted as the organization’s full name, but used to stand for “Emergency Care Research Institute.”