Prostate specific antigen (PSA) has significantly improved the early detection of prostate cancer (PCa), reducing the related mortality rate. However, PSA has a low specificity, being affected by many benign conditions. [-2]proPSA, a PSA precursor, is a more specific and accurate biomarker indicating prostate biopsy in men at real risk of PCa.
by Dr A. Abrate, Dr M. Lazzeri and Prof. G. Guazzoni
PSA as a marker for prostate cancer
Prostate specific antigen (PSA) is a serum marker widely used for the early detection of prostate cancer (PCa). Its introduction into clinical practice in the early 1990s had an extraordinary impact on the diagnosis and management of PCa. In fact, 20 years after its introduction, the PSA-based PCa opportunistic or systematic screening has resulted in a stage migration to more organ-confined tumours at the time of diagnosis, and consequently to a consistent reduction in PCa related mortality [1, 2]. However, PSA is not a perfect marker for the detection of PCa because of its low specificity and sensitivity. Its levels may increase as a result of benign conditions, such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and chronic prostatitis. Moreover, PSA levels are also affected by biologic variability, which may be related to differences in androgen levels, prostate manipulation or ejaculation. Finally, alterations in PSA levels may be related to sample handling, laboratory processing, or assay standardization. All these factors made it difficult to find an appropriate PSA cut-off point diagnostic for PCa (for many years considered to be 4 ng/ml).
Thus, prostate biopsy is still mandatory to confirm the diagnosis. However, this is positive in only approximately 30% of patients , and the European Association of Urology suggests a repeat biopsy if PSA is persistently elevated, the digital rectal examination (DRE) is suspicious, or there is a pathological diagnosis of atypical small acinar proliferation (ASAP) or high-grade prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia (HG-PIN) . Finally, PCa (also high-grade cancer) is not rare (approximately 15.2%) among men with PSA levels lower than 4 ng/ml, the previously widely accepted cut-off point .
Considering all these observations, it is clear that PSA is an organ-specific rather than an ideal cancer-specific marker.
The introduction into clinical practice of measuring the levels of several derivatives of PSA (free PSA, percentage of free PSA, PSA density, PSA velocity) improved the accuracy of total PSA (tPSA) in detecting PCa. Recently, free PSA (fPSA) has been found to include several subforms, such as proPSA. In particular [-2]proPSA seems to be specific for PCa, opening new ways for early cancer detection.
Biological basis of proPSA
The currently measurable serum tPSA consists of either a complexed form (cPSA, 70–90%), bound by protease inhibitors (primarily alpha1-antichymotrypsin), and a non-complexed form (fPSA). Recently fPSA has been discovered to exist in at least three molecular forms: proPSA, benign PSA (BPSA), and inactive intact PSA (iPSA), covering approximately 33%, 28%, and 39% of fPSA respectively (Fig. 1) . In particular, proPSA is a proenzyme (precursor) of PSA, which is associated with PCa .
PSA is synthesized with a 17-amino acid leader sequence (preproPSA) that is cleaved co-translationally to generate an inactive 244-amino acid precursor protein (proPSA, with seven additional amino acids compared to mature PSA). proPSA is normally secreted from the prostate luminal epithelial cells. Immediately after its release into the lumen, the pro-leader part is removed, creating the active form, by the effect of human kallikrein (hK)-2 and hK-4, which have a trypsin-like activity and are expressed predominantly by prostate secretory epithelium. Other kallikreins, localized in the prostate, such as hK216 or prostin17, are involved in the conversion and activation of proPSA. Cleavage of the N-terminal seven amino acids from proPSA generates the active enzyme, which has a mass of 33 kDa.
The partial removal of this leader sequence leads to other truncated forms of proPSA. Thus, theoretically seven isoforms of proPSA could exist, although only [-1], [-2], [-4], [-5], [-7]proPSA were found; there is still no evidence of [-3], [-6]proPSA. However, all forms of proPSA are enzymatically inactive . It is possible to detect three truncated forms of proPSA in serum: [-5/-7], [-4] and [-2]proPSA, which is the most stable form (Fig. 1).
Notably, in vitro experiments showed that the [-2]proPSA form cannot be activated by either hK2 or trypsin; thus, once it is formed, [-2]proPSA is resistant to activation into the mature PSA form and consequently this is the most reliable test.
Mikolajczyk et al. , using a monoclonal antibody recognizing [-2]proPSA, found increased staining in the secretions from malignant prostate glands. In particular [-2]proPSA is differentially elevated in peripheral gland cancer tissue; conversely transition zone tissue contains little or no proPSA.
The increased serum tPSA concentrations in patients with PCa do not result from increased expression but rather from an increased release of PSA into the bloodstream, due to disruption of the epithelial architecture. fPSA is catalytically inactive because of internal cleavages, occurring in seminal plasma, and does not form complexes with protease inhibitors or other proteins: in PCa %fPSA is lower presumably because, consequently to an increased release of PSA into the bloodstream, a very low part is still degraded into the ducts.
In another later study , Mikolajczyk et al. found that [-2]proPSA was specifically higher in patients with PCa. Analysing a small number of patients with biopsy positive for PCa and tPSA between 6 and 24 ng/ml, they found that [-2]proPSA constituted a high fraction of fPSA (25% to 95%), which was greater than in patients with a negative biopsy. However, the molecular basis for the proPSA elevation in PCa is uncertain, although a decreased cleavage by hK2 could be the cause.
Clinical utility of proPSA
Sokoll et al.  were the first to study the role of proPSA in the early detection of PCa. The study involved archival serum from 119 men (31 PCa, 88 non-cancer), obtained before biopsy and in the tPSA range of 2.5–4.0 ng/ml. The serum levels of tPSA, fPSA, proPSA, and proPSA/fPSA ratio (%proPSA) were analysed: PSA and %fPSA values were similar between the non-cancer and PCa groups, and %proPSA was relatively higher in the PCa group (50.1±4.4%) compared to the non-cancer group (35.5±6.7%; P=0.07). Concerning the clinical utility, the area under the curve (AUC) for %proPSA was 0.688 compared to 0.567 for %fPSA. At fixed sensitivity of 75%, the specificity was significantly greater for %proPSA at 59% compared with %fPSA at 33% (P<0.0001). Afterwards, the Prostate Health Index (PHI) has been proposed as a mathematical algorithm combining tPSA, fPSA and [-2]proPSA according to the formula: ([-2]proPSA/fPSA) × √tPSA. A large American prospective trial , involving 892 men who had tPSA levels of 2–10 ng/ml and negative digital rectal examination results, showed that PHI had greater predictive accuracy for prostate biopsy outcome (AUC 0.703) than [-2]proPSA (AUC 0.557), %fPSA (AUC 0.648) and PSA (AUC 0.525), directly correlating with Gleason score (GS) (P=0.013), with an AUC of 0.724 for GS ≥4+3 disease. Moreover, men with PHI >55 had a 42% likelihood of being diagnosed with high-grade disease on biopsy compared to 26% of men with PHI 0–24.9.
Accordingly, an observational European multicenter cohort study involved 646 men with tPSA levels of 2–10 ng/ml, who had undergone prostate biopsy . [-2]proPSA and PHI improved the predictive accuracy for the detection of overall PCa (and also GS ≥7 disease) compared to PSA and derivatives. In fact, at 90% sensitivity, the PHI cut-off of 27.6 could avoid 100 (15.5%) biopsies, missing 26 (9.8%) cancers (23 with GS 6, three with GS 3+4).
Moreover, a PHI based nomogram to predict PCa at extended prostate biopsy was developed and validated over 729 patients . Including PHI in a multivariable logistic regression model, based on patient age, prostate volume, digital rectal examination and biopsy history, significantly increased predictive accuracy by 7% from 0.73 to 0.80 (P<0.001). Decision curve analysis showed that using the PHI based nomogram resulted in the highest net benefit.
Recently, it was demonstrated that PHI might have a role in screening patients at high risk of PCa . Specifically, the study involved 158 men with a positive family history undergoing prostate biopsy within the multicentre European PROMEtheuS cohort. Similarly to previous studies in the general population, PHI outperformed tPSA and %fPSA for PCa detection on biopsy (AUC 0.73, 0.55 and 0.60, respectively). In addition, both [-2]proPSA and PHI were directly associated with GS in men with a positive family history. Overall, the authors reported that using a PHI cutoff value of 25.5 would have avoided 17.2% of biopsies while missing only two GS 7 cancers. On decision curve analysis, the addition of PHI to a base predictive model that included age, prostate volume, tPSA, fPSA and %fPSA resulted in net benefit at threshold probabilities of 35–65%. This result suggests that PHI should be incorporated into a multivariable risk assessment for high-risk patients because it offers improved performance for PCa detection.
[-2]proPSA and PHI are more accurate than the currently used tests (PSA and derivatives) in predicting the presence of PCa at biopsy. Their implementation in clinical practice has the potential to significantly increase physicians’ ability to detect PCa and avoid unnecessary biopsies. Further work is needed to confirm and generalize these data on wider populations.
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Alberto Abrate* MD; Massimo Lazzeri MD, PhD; and Giorgio Guazzoni MD
Dept of Urology, Ospedale San Raffaele Turro, San Raffaele
Scientific Institute, Milan, Italy