A personalised approach to prostate cancer screening would not only save the National Health Service millions of pounds but could also result in fewer deaths from the disease, research funded by Cancer Research UK has found.

A theoretical model looking at two different methods of screening concluded that one based on a man's age and genetic predisposition to the disease would save lives and cost tens of millions of pounds less that a blanket screen of all men aged 55-74 with the PSA test every four years.

According to the model, which was presented at the NCRI Cancer Conference in Liverpool this week, 50% fewer men would need to be screened and 18% less men would be diagnosed with the disease.

The researchers also suggest that the personalised method could help address the issue of over-diagnosis and unnecessary treatment, which in itself can lead to impotence and incontinence and represents a significant waste of precious resources.

Currently, there is no national screening programme for prostate cancer, of which there are around 40,000 new cases every year, because of the absence of a reliable indicator for the disease.

PSA not definitive

The problem with the only available test, which examines the blood for a protein called protein specific antigen, is that is cannot accurately determine whether prostate cancer is present or whether it is aggressive in nature.

The PSA test helps doctors to diagnose prostate cancer as men with high levels are more likely to have cancer. However, men can have raised level without having cancer and, conversely, prostate cancer may be present without higher levels of PSA.

"There is great uncertainty about the usefulness of screening for prostate cancer using the PSA test, with many men finding it difficult to weigh up the pros and cons," said Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK.

"This research suggests an important way to select men for whom testing may be more worthwhile, which points us in the right direction for the future," he added, noting that the charity is already funding research into targeting screening to men who have a higher risk of developing the disease.