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Testicular tests

Ashley Byrne / sms
August 23, 2013

A growing awareness of testicular cancer and use of the drug Cisplatin appear to be behind higher survival figures for UK patients with the disease. But experts say men still need to check themselves out more often.

Seminoma of the Testis. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Seminoma_of_the_Testis.jpg Copyright: Ed Uthman, MD. *** This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Ed Uthman. This applies worldwide. In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so: Ed Uthman grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.
Image: Ed Uthman

In the 1970s, almost one in three men would die from testicular cancer in the United Kingdom, but now the survival rate has risen to 96 percent. The secret of the success in increasing survival rates can be attributed partly to the use of a drug called Cisplatin, according to some experts.

The medicine is a very small drug molecule with a platinum center and two ammonium molecules and two chlorides attached to it. When it's injected into the body - because it's neutral - it's able to cross the cell membrane and get into the cells, says Dr. Charlotte Willans of the University of Leeds, who with her colleagues monitor the effectiveness of drugs used in cancer treatments.

Preventing cancer's spread

"Cisplatin essentially cross links the DNA and stops it from replicating," says Dr. Willans. "In healthy cells the DNA can often repair itself through DNA repair enzymes but the cancers can't do this. So following this it can't replicate and it undergoes programed cell death."

The drug seems to be helping patients - it's been called the penicillin of the cancer world - but scientists are keen to find ways of reducing the toxicity of the platinum-based drug. Side effects include vomiting, kidney and nerve damage and hearing loss.

A pile of white pills
Scientists want to develop effective treatments with fewer side effectsImage: Bilderbox

"We're moving away from platinum with the idea of trying to decrease the toxicity of these drugs but increase their effectiveness against cancers," Willans said. "It's known that other metals also kill cancers so we're working a lot with titanium, ruthenium."

Talking about testicles

But beating testicular cancer takes more than drugs. Treatments are most effective if the cancer is diagnosed early as it can quickly spread. Awareness of the disease has improved, but despite the rise in survival rates, doctors in Britain have said too many men are still presenting symptoms at a dangerously late stage.

"No one knows what causes testicular cancer," says Paul Nethercott, a public health advisor in Manchester.

But there are a number of known risk factors including family history, an undestended testicle in a patient's youth. Testicular cancer usually affects men between the ages of 15 and 44 with the majority of cases in men between 25 and 35 years old.

Water flowing from shower heads Photo: Ralf Hirschberger +++(c) dpa - Report+++
The shower is an ideal place for men to check themselves for testicular cancerImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

Checking for testicular cancer is a simple procedure that involves holding the scrotum in the palm of the hand and feeling the testis for lumps or differences between the testicles. Nethercott says it's something men can easily do in the shower and have checked by a physician.

"Being guys we're happy to talk about other parts of our anatomy freely but when it's something that really matters such as keeping ourselves healthy, men just clam up," he says. "At the end of the day prevention is far better than cure. It's a moment's embarrassment lads, come on."