Nightly News   |  May 08, 2013

New prostate cancer test may prevent overtreatment

By engaging in active surveillance, experts say, doctors can better understand whether or not it’s safe for men to go untreated for prostate cancer. There are several tests that already predict how dangerous a tumor is, but a new test from the company Genomic Health provides doctors with more information by analyzing multiple genes. NBC’s Richard Bazell reports.

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>>> we have medical news tonight on prostate cancer . of course any advance on this topic is important because of the 240,000 men diagnosed and the 30,000 who will die of it this year alone. treatment usually involves surgery or radiation or both. that can, of course, lead to serious side effects but in many cases the cancer is slow growing and may not need immediate treatment. now a new test can help determine the right course of action. our report tonight from our chief science correspondent robert bazell .

>> reporter: john shoemaker and his wife donna remember seven years ago when he learned he had prostate cancer .

>> initially it was, oh, my gosh, am i going to live? what's going on?

>> i was pretty upset. i was crying, hysterical.

>> reporter: since then john has had no treatment and is perfectly healthy. his doctor watches the tumor in active surveillance. a new test may help determine when that is a good option. it measures 17 genes and should allow more men and their doctors to know whether it is safe to go untreated. john, a retired computer executive was scheduled for surgery. he then visited dr. peter carol who has long argued while prostate cancer can be deadly, often it is not. so treatment that can cause side effects including impotence and incontinence is not always necessary.

>> how many men do you think were treated with surgery or radiation who could have lived to a long, healthy life without it.

>> a large, large, very large number . millions probably.

>> reporter: already biopsies and scans can predict how dangerous a tumor is. the test adds more information.

>> this test will have a big impact to make physicians comfortable recommending active surveillance or not and the same thing for patients.

>> reporter: it is not clear yet whether insurance companies will pay the $3800 price tag. many doctors say they need more real world experience to know how useful this and similar tests are.

>> can you see any cancer?

>> i can't.

>> reporter: many agree genetic tests are the future of what's called precision medicine. allowing doctors to treat or not treat patients in the best possible way. robert bazell , nbc news, san francisco .