To address those questions, we have to understand what is called the "natural history" of prostate cancer progression. Even high-risk prostate cancer is quite a different sort of thing from metastatic prostate cancer. High-risk prostate cancer cells, for example those with Gleason score 5+5, are incapable of thriving outside the prostatic environment. At some point they undergo a genetic transition called epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT), after which they can freely move throughout the body in the lymph, blood or the spaces around nerves, and plant themselves and accumulate in distant locations. Sometimes those microscopic metastases can circulate for a long time before planting themselves somewhere new. Sometimes they can plant themselves but do not proliferate appreciably for a long time. Sometimes they can alter the tissue environment in a new place (especially bone tissue) so it is more amenable to clumping and proliferation. Sometimes those cells get caught in lymph nodes (lymph nodes may be thought of as filters to catch cellular debris, including cancer cells) and proliferate there. All of these processes occur simultaneously.
Let's try to gain an understanding of how many cancer cells are in systemic circulation at a given time. We have found that a count of 5 or more circulating tumor cells (CTC) per 7.5 ml of blood is associated with metastatic progression (the prostate is also always shedding cells, healthy and cancerous, that are not capable of metastatic progression). So a 200 lb. man with no detectable metastases and with a CTC count of 5, who has 6.5 liters of blood, will have at least 4,300 circulating tumor cells. In addition, there will be many thousands more lodged in and between tissues. Now, to be detectably metastatic with today's best imaging technology, a clump of tumor cells must be at least 4 mm long. The cancer cell may be about 10 μm, so there are at least 200,000,000 of them before the smallest metastasis becomes detectable. All of those cancer cells are constantly shedding and forming new daughter metastases elsewhere. So cancer cells may be circulating, clumping, and growing for a long time before they form a big enough clump to be detectable.
It should be clear that there is no possibility of a cure without systemic treatment. Currently, we have no systemic treatments that can cure metastatic prostate cancer.
How long does it take to go from the first microscopic metastasis to the point where it is detectably metastatic? That's impossible to know with any accuracy for a given individual. What we do know is that on average it takes 8 years from the time a man is biochemically recurrent after prostatectomy to the time when the first bone metastases are detected on a bone scan (see this link). That represents the accumulation of perhaps a billion cells in one place. It may be years more before the next bone metastasis is detected. Lymph node metastases are the slowest progressing of all the kinds that prostate cancer causes. It is not unusual for many years to pass between new detectable lymph node metastases. The new PET scans detect metastases much earlier, when the tumors are 80% smaller.
Now we can come back to the question of whether early detection and treatment of metastases can at least slow progression and increase survival. A C-11 Choline PET/CT may be able to reliably detect metastases when the PSA is only about 2 ng/ml, rather than 20 ng/ml for a bone scan. The newer PSMA-based PET/CTs may detect metastases even earlier, say at about 0.5 ng/ml. So, if any treatment is given when metastases are detected this early, and then we find that it takes a very long time - many years - to detect subsequent metastases, did the treatment delay progression? This effect is called "lead-time bias."
Adding to the confusion is the fact that those big clumps of detectable cancer cells are the source of much of the PSA. When those detected metastases are "zapped," the cancer cells in them no longer secrete PSA and the cancer is controlled locally. We also know that old clumps of cancer are a rich source for new tumor cells. Is it possible that reducing at least that local source of metastatic cells will slow progression?
The only way to answer this question with any assurance is to conduct a randomized clinical trial. Some patients will get the treatment, in this case SBRT to the detected metastases, and the other patients will get standard of care -- hormone therapy. Then we will be able to see how long it takes for new distant metastases to be detected for the treated group as compared to the control group; and more importantly, did the treated group survive longer?
Triggiani et al. retrospectively report on patients at several centers in Italy (for some reason, most of these studies have been done in Italy) who had 3 or fewer detected metastases treated with SBRT.
- About 100 patients with a recurrence after primary treatment with metastases detected by Choline PET scan (the oligo-recurrent group)
- 41 castration-resistant patients with metastases detected by bone scan/CT (the oligo-CRPC group)
After a median of 20-23 months of follow-up, distant progression-free survival was:
- 43% after 2 years for the oligo-recurrent group
- 22% after 2 years for the oligo-CRPC group
The authors conclude:
"Stereotactic body radiotherapy seems to be a useful treatment both for oligo-recurrent and oligo-CRPC."
We are now ready to understand why this is an unwarranted conclusion. There is no way to know, based on the data they provided, whether the treatment was "useful" or not. We have no way of knowing what the distant progression-free survival would have been had they not received the SBRT treatment. Inexplicably, several groups from Italy also reached such unwarranted conclusions.
In fact, in a meta-analysis with longer-running follow-up data, Ost et al. (commented on here) found that for oligo-recurrent patients, distant progression-free survival was:
- 31% after 3 years, and only
- 15% after 5 years
In other words, the vast majority (85%) of men with SBRT-treated oligometastatic recurrence had detectably relapsed within 5 years. Given the lead-time bias and the slow rate of detectable early progression anyway, it is impossible to say that the radiation treatment accomplished anything. Until we have some proof, patients should approach metastatic treatment for anything but palliative purposes with caution. There is currently no evidence, none, that treatment of metastases has any effect on survival.
In spite of the lack of evidence, if a radiation oncologist looking at the patient's anatomy finds metastatic radiation to be safe, then there is little reason other than cost to abstain from it. However, a patient is taking a survival risk if he puts off hormone therapy in order to find metastases, especially in light of early evidence from the TOAD study.
Treatment of pelvic lymph nodes is a special case. If a patient is able to detect any metastatic pelvic lymph nodes, and he is convinced that he should have treatment at all, he should consider treatment of the entire pelvic lymph node field rather than isolated pelvic lymph nodes. One has to treat what one can't see as well as what one can see; again, provided that it is safe to do so. Safety may be questionable because of anatomy, lack of visceral fat, history of bowel inflammation, and previous pelvic radiation. The evidence for efficacy is mixed. Some retrospective data analyses (Rusthoven, Abdollah, Jegadeesh) found a survival benefit, while some did not (Kaplan and Johnstone). These retrospective studies are notoriously confounded by selection bias (i.e., the patients who got the therapy were the most likely to improve anyway). We await the outcomes of the randomized clinical trials before we have a more definitive answer.
There are currently several randomized clinical trials that have begun. Few are large enough or scheduled to run long enough to detect a survival benefit for prostate cancer. So far, the trials are in London, Montreal, France, Ghent, Italy and at Johns Hopkins.