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Urol Clin North Am. 2003 May;30(2):209-17.

The epidemiology of prostate cancer.

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Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, European Institute of Oncology, Via Ripamonti 435, 20141 Milan, Italy.


The etiology of prostate cancer remains virtually unknown. Although there are a number of new leads with regard to risk factors for prostate cancer, more research is required to confirm them. There is little purpose in conducting further case-control studies of prostate cancer-particularly since the use of PSA testing has become wide-spread. Instead, future epidemiologic studies should focus on prostate tumor subclassification, in terms of method of detection, markers of biological "aggressiveness," and genetic changes. Many of these new leads involve the possible influence of polymorphisms in key genes involved in important physiologic processes in the prostate. To fully explore the complexity of interrelationships between the several elements in these pathways will require large cohort studies in which blood is sampled prior to diagnosis. Such studies will be important for identifying which modifiable aspects of lifestyle (such as diet, alcohol, tobacco, physical activity) might be targeted for intervention, to reduce risk. The detection of early prostate cancers by PSA testing relatives of men with prostate cancer has affected the prevalence of phenocopies and, hence, the meaningfulness of risk estimation in prostate cancer families. Because multiple-case families form the substrate for gene hunting via linkage analysis, this phenocopy phenomenon is going to cause considerable confusion and wasted effort. Presently, men with a family history of prostate cancer can be provided with little advice in terms of preventive action. It is likely that one or more genetic mutations associated with a high risk for prostate cancer will be identified in the near future. Even so, the risks probably will be similar to those for mutations in the first two breast cancer genes--informative for very few families. It is difficult to foresee, as and when high-risk mutation carriers are identified, what advice should be offered to them: prophylactic prostatectomies seem to have less attraction than do prophylactic mastectomies for women at high risk of breast cancer. This issue becomes more complex when considering counseling on the basis of a genetic profile involving many low-risk polymorphisms. Hopefully, such genetic screening should occur only after its efficacy has been established; when there is a better understanding of prostate biology, tumor heterogeneity, and prognosis; and when there are proven treatment or prevention options available. Prevention is held to be better than cure, and there are some potentially interesting chemopreventive agents that require careful trial before public health initiatives can be promoted. Potential candidates include vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and lycopene as dietary supplements. There are other agents that may be appropriate for pharmaceutical development, including inhibitors of COX-2 and IGF-1 activity. It is important that chemoprevention trials are followed-up for a sufficient period of time and that other endpoints also are captured, because the supplementation of diets with superphysiologic doses of individual micronutrients sometimes has caused unexpected and unwanted results--for example, an 18% increase in lung cancers observed in the beta-carotene arm of the ATBC trial.

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