How Useful is the PCA3 Urine Test for Prostate Cancer?

The PCA3 urine test detects prostate cancer better than the PSA blood test – true or false? If you answered true, you are on the right track. The PSA test is not a clear indication of cancer because an elevated number merely signals an unknown way in which the prostate gland is being stimulated. Yes, it could be cancer, but it could also be an infection, inflammation, or an age-related enlargement of the gland (BPH). In fact, riding a bicycle, having sex, and even having a digital rectal exam can temporarily bump up the PSA.

On the other hand, the PCA3 urine test is much more specific for prostate cancer. The urine is collected following a digital rectal exam (DRE) that causes the prostate to shed whole prostate cells into the urine. These cells can then be analyzed for a certain gene associated with the presence of cancer. Thus, the PCA3 is “a molecular biology assay that measures the expression of PCA3 (prostate cancer gene 3) mRNA [messenger RNA] in urine samples.”[i] The analysis gives a numeric score, and the cutoff point (“red flag”) for cancer is considered to be 35 or higher. One study even suggested that for men who have never had a prostate biopsy, a score of 60 or higher suggests a high likelihood that a biopsy will find cancer.

PCA3 not entirely accurate

However, the PCA3 urine test is not 100% accurate. “There have been many reports of men with PCA3 scores of > 100 who have been found to be negative for prostate cancer after multiple biopsies,” according to one author.[ii] Nonetheless, it still has value for patients who have already had one or more biopsies that did not find cancer. For them, several published studies support that the PCA3 test can help avoid an unnecessary repeat biopsy if it returns a score under 35.

Not having to have a prostate biopsy is usually a relief. No one enjoys undergoing a transrectal ultrasound (TRUS) guided biopsy with its risks of pain, bleeding, and infection. Patients suspected of having prostate cancer, or those who have been treated but may be at risk for recurrence, all wish there were a simple “liquid biopsy” (blood or urine test) that did not involve sticking needles into the prostate gland but was accurate.

No liquid biopsy yet

If doctors and patients were hoping that the PCA3 would satisfy the requirements of an accurate prostate cancer urine-based biopsy, they will be disappointed. At this point, the PCA3 is a useful tool to help determine if a patient needs a biopsy. It even has a limited prognostic (predictive) value because it can help stratify patients according to risk level; high PCA3 scores are correlated with the presence of more aggressive prostate cancer.  The problem is, it’s not reliably accurate with an unknown percentage of cases. Researcher Andrew Vickers, Ph.D. (Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York) is quoted by Medscape Medical News as stating that “in the initial biopsy setting, the risk that you’ll have a low PCA3 but still have an aggressive cancer is higher than most urologists would be comfortable with.”[iii] This means that PCA3 is not entirely reliable for determining whether a man who has never had a biopsy can safely avoid one.

Genomic analysis is undoubtedly a game changer in detecting and diagnosing prostate cancer. It is not yet a foolproof, stand-alone diagnostic measure, but it’s an important addition to the diagnostic toolkit.

Equally valuable is 3T multiparametric MRI (3T mpMRI) imaging. When determining if a patient needs a prostate biopsy, the combination of PSA, a genomic test like PCA3, and 3T mpMRI gives the most comprehensive information. Furthermore, if a biopsy is indicated, an in-bore MRI-guided biopsy significantly reduces the risks of a TRUS biopsy by minimizing the number of needles, yet provides the highest diagnostic accuracy.

For more information about 3T mpMRI and its benefits for men suspected of prostate cancer or post-treatment recurrence, contact the Sperling Prostate Center.


[i] http://www.pca3.ca/en/healthcare/

[ii] https://prostatecancerinfolink.net/2015/01/12/the-value-of-the-pca3-test-a-multi-center-study/

[iii] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/837934

This site uses cookies to analyze traffic and user behavior, protect your privacy, and provide you with the best user experience. Learn more.
close-image

How can we help?

Contact us to discuss your prostate health and plan your path to wellness.

close-link