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Personalisation may improve prostate cancer screening accuracy

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Scientists have moved a step closer to genetically personalised prostate cancer screening.

The most common assessment test for the cancer, which mainly affects men over the age of 50, is prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening which often erroneously indicates signs of the disease.

But a joint team at UC San Francisco and Stanford University, both in the US, have come up with a method they believe will make screening more accurate by calibrating PSA levels to each man’s genetics.

They say applying this type of personalisation could significantly reduce overdiagnosis and better predict aggressive disease. In addition to the regular blood-based PSA test, such customised screening would need a germline genetic test, usually conducted on blood, saliva, or cheek swab samples, to look for inherited genetic variants that affect PSA levels.

Whilst raised PSA levels can be a sign of a cancerous prostate tumour, they can also be caused by other circumstances, like infection, an enlarged prostate, inflammation or simply old age.

In a study published in Nature Medicine, UCSF researchers and their collaborators conducted a large genome-wide association study of PSA in more than 95,000 men without diagnosed prostate cancer. This identified more than 80 novel PSA- associated variants.

They set out to discover whether accounting for genetic factors that cause variations in the levels of PSA that are not attributable to cancer could help improve PSA screening.

Senior author of the study, John Witte, a professor of epidemiology and population health and of biomedical data sciences at Stanford, said: “Some men have higher PSA levels due to their genetics. They don’t have cancer, but the higher PSA level leads to a cascade of unnecessary medical interventions like biopsy.”

Linda Kachuri, a former postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at UCSF and lead author of the study, added: “PSA levels represent the main diagnostic biomarker for prostate cancer. This test is widely used but not currently implemented as part of a formal screening programme.

“Because of its poor sensitivity and specificity, PSA testing can often lead to detecting latent disease or, in some cases, missing aggressive tumours.”

The researchers identified 128 sites in the genome that can affect a person’s inherent PSA level. They developed a way to calculate PSA that accounts for an individual’s normal genetic variations at these sites – known as a PSA polygenic score, which is a quantitative way of measuring someone’s genetic predisposition for a trait in a single value. In this case, the trait is a higher baseline PSA level.

The researchers leveraged the new data to build a genome-wide polygenic score for PSA.

The polygenic score captured each individual’s genetic predisposition to high PSA levels. The team found the polygenic score was strongly associated with PSA levels in validation cohorts and was not associated with prostate cancer. This confirmed that it reflects benign PSA variation.

To examine whether the polygenic score could improve the detection of clinically significant disease and reduce overdiagnosis, each person’s PSA values were adjusted based on their unique genetic profile.

Dr Kachuri said: “PSA values personalised in this way are more likely to reveal changes in PSA due to prostate cancer because they are corrected for the influence of inherited genetics.”

Applying a correction to PSA levels improved the accuracy of biopsy referral decisions. Roughly 30% of men could have avoided biopsy, though adjusted PSA levels would have missed approximately 9% of positive cell samples.

Most of the latter cancers were low-grade disease that did not require treatment, but the researchers admit the misclassifications point to room for improving the polygenic score.

Dr Kachuri said: “We showed that genetic correction of PSA levels has the potential to both reduce unnecessary biopsies and improve our ability to detect tumours with a more aggressive profile. We hope that our findings represent a step forward in developing informative screening guidelines and reducing the diagnostic grey area in PSA screening.”

While the study was very large, almost 90% of the participants were of predominantly European ancestry.

According to Dr Kachuri, this represents a key limitation because the composition of the study doesn’t fully reflect the patient population impacted by prostate cancer.

The team is now working on a larger study in association with the Million Veteran Program, a US-based national research project launched in 2011 looking at how genes, lifestyle, military experience, and exposures affect health and wellness in former members of the armed forces. More than 950,000 veterans have now joined the MVP.

Nearly 1.5 million new prostate cancer cases are diagnosed each year globally and it is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among men. In the US, one in nine men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer, and one in 40 will die from it.

With a disease as prevalent as prostate cancer the researchers believe even a small improvement in screening could save lives.

Dr Kachuri concluded: “We hope to be able to share findings soon from our efforts to conduct larger and more diverse studies of PSA genetics.”

 

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Air pollution linked to increased hospital admission for heart and lung diseases

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Exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution is linked to an increased risk of hospital admission for major heart and lung diseases, find two large US studies, published by The BMJ.

Together, the results suggest that no safe threshold exists for heart and lung health.

According to the Global Burden of Disease study, exposure to PM2.5 accounts for an estimated 7.6% of total global mortality and 4.2% of global disability adjusted life years (a measure of years lived in good health).

In light of this extensive evidence, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated the air quality guidelines in 2021, recommending that an annual average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 5 μg/m3 and 24 hour average PM2.5 levels should not exceed 15 μg/m3 on more than 3-4 days each year.

In the first study, researchers linked average daily PM2.5 levels to residential zip codes for nearly 60 million US adults (84 per cent white, 55 per cent women) aged 65 and over from 2000 to 2016. They then used Medicare insurance data to track hospital admissions over an average of eight years.

After accounting for a range of economic, health and social factors, average PM2.5 exposure over three years was associated with increased risks of first hospital admissions for seven major types of cardiovascular disease – ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, heart failure, cardiomyopathy, arrhythmia, valvular heart disease, and thoracic and abdominal aortic aneurysms.

Compared with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less (the WHO air quality guideline for annual PM2.5), exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3, which encompassed the US national average of 9.7 μg/m3 during the study period, were associated with a 29% increased risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease.

On an absolute scale, the risk of hospital admission for cardiovascular disease increased from 2.59% with exposures of 5 μg/m3 or less to 3.35% at exposures between 9 and 10 μg/m3.

“This means that if we were able to manage to reduce annual PM2.5 below 5 µg/m3, we could avoid 23% in hospital admissions for cardiovascular disease,” say the researchers.*

These cardiovascular effects persisted for at least three years after exposure to PM2.5, and susceptibility varied by age, education, access to healthcare services, and area deprivation level.

The researchers say their findings suggest that no safe threshold exists for the chronic effect of PM2.5 on overall cardiovascular health, and that substantial benefits could be attained through adherence to the WHO air quality guideline.

“On February 7, 2024, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) updated the national air quality standard for annual PM2.5 level, setting a stricter limit at no more than 9 µg/m3. This is the first update since 2012. However, it is still considerably higher than the 5 µg/m3 set by WHO. Obviously, the newly published national standard was not sufficient for the protection of public health,” they add.*

In the second study, researchers used county-level daily PM2.5 concentrations and medical claims data to track hospital admissions and emergency department visits for natural causes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease for 50 million US adults aged 18 and over from 2010 to 2016.

During the study period, more than 10 million hospital admissions and 24 million emergency department visits were recorded.

They found that short term exposure to PM2.5, even at concentrations below the new WHO air quality guideline limit, was statistically significantly associated with higher rates of hospital admissions for natural causes, cardiovascular disease and respiratory disease, as well as emergency department visits for respiratory disease.

For example, on days when daily PM2.5 levels were below the new WHO air quality guideline limit of 15 μg/m3, an increase of 10 μg/m3 in PM2.5 was associated with 1.87 extra hospital admissions per million adults aged 18 and over per day.

The researchers say their findings constitute an important contribution to the debate about the revision of air quality limits, guidelines, and standards.

Both research teams acknowledge several limitations such as possible misclassification of exposure and point out that other unmeasured factors may have affected their results. What’s more, the findings may not apply to individuals without medical insurance, children and adolescents, and those living outside the US.

However, taken together, these new results provide valuable reference for future national air pollution standards.

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Home health care linked to increased hospice use at end-of-life – study

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Patients who had previously received home health care had a higher likelihood of accessing hospice care at the end of their life, according to a new study.

Researchers, whose findings are published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, examined the home health care and hospice care experiences of more than two million people.

Using Medicare data, researchers found when individuals received home health care before the last year of their life, they had higher odds of using hospice care than those who had never received home health care.

Researchers said this association underscores the potential benefits of receiving end-of-life care in the comfort of one’s home.

As the aged population increases, the findings also show the need for more resources in the health care sector and staff training in end-of-life care.

Home health care services including skilled nursing, therapy, social work and aide services are used to maintain functioning or slow decline in health. Hospice care provides similar services but is intended for those with life expectancies of six months or less and is focused on pain relief, minimising hospital visits and providing comfort and support. Both services provide patients the opportunity to receive more personalised care in their home.

Researchers say home-based care also encourages greater involvement of family caregivers in the caregiving process.

Olga Jarrín, senior author of the study, the Hunterdon Professor of Nursing Research at the Rutgers School of Nursing and director of the Community Health and Aging Outcomes Laboratory within the Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research, commented: “In addition to benefits for the patient, hospice care also provides resources and support to help family caregivers cope with the physical, emotional and practical challenges of caring for a loved one at the end of life.”

Hyosin (Dawn) Kim, research assistant professor at Oregon State University and first author of the study, added: “By providing personalised care, reducing hospitalisations, fostering family involvement and support, and improving symptom management, home-based care can enhance the quality of end-of-life experiences for patients with terminal illnesses and their families.”

 

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Sleep programme shows promise in those with memory problems – study

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A new study has shown promising results in improving sleep and quality of life in individuals living with memory problems.

A group of researchers from Penn Nursing, Penn Medicine, Rutgers School of Nursing, and Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, have delved into the efficacy of a non-pharmacological approach in a trial known as the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program.

The study involved 209 pairings of community-residing individuals with memory problems and their care partners. Participants were assigned to either the Healthy Patterns Sleep Program, which consisted of one-hour home activity sessions administered over four weeks, or a control group that received sleep hygiene training, plus education on home safety and health promotion.

The Healthy Patterns Sleep Program trained care partners in timed daily activities such as reminiscence in the morning, exercise in the afternoon and sensory activities in the evening that can decrease daytime sleepiness and improve nighttime sleep quality.

Nancy Hodgson, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Claire M. Fagin Leadership Professor in Nursing and Chair of Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences, who led the study, said: “The results from this study provide fundamental new knowledge regarding the effects of timing activity participation and can lead to structured, replicable treatment protocols to address sleep disturbances. Overall, the Healthy Patterns program resulted in improved QOL compared to an attention-control group.”

The findings also indicate that, compared to a control group, the four-week Healthy Patterns program improved sleep quality among persons living with memory issues who had depressive symptoms or poor sleep quality.  The study indicates the Healthy Patterns Intervention might need a longer dose to induce improvements in other sleep-wake activity metrics.

The study’s significance lies in its confirmation of the effectiveness of behavioural interventions in not only improving quality of life and addressing sleep quality issues in this population, but also potentially reducing care partner burden and overall care costs for persons living at home with memory problems.

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