Ben Stiller and PSA Fly, Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos Die

stiller-holmesWhen my friends back in medical school were choosing their specialties, there were the glamour fields to make a mark in. Cardiac surgery was a winner, orthopedics appealed to both the big bruisers and the little Napoleons, and neurology had the imprimatur of being for the intellectuals.

But pathology and laboratory medicine? That was for the true nerds and geeks. And believe me, you had to be really low to be considered a nerd by other medical students, few of whom had Head Cheerleader or Captain of the Football Team on their resumes. But I did my thing and watched while my colleagues in other specialties got their accolades. Who knew that lab testing would be a big deal in two news stories in one week?

Both stories are ones you may have been following along with me. First, early this week, Ben Stiller revealed that he had been treated for prostate cancer and that PSA (prostate specific antigen) testing had saved his life.

Now, I have discussed several times the controversy about PSA screening and how, based on my professional findings, I strongly believe in testing. Stiller’s story is anecdotal, it doesn’t prove anything in the debate, but a little good publicity doesn’t hurt. After all, if we have to hear about junk science from other celebrities, it is good to hear something from an actor (Zoolander doesn’t count) that doesn’t make me cringe. If you (or your spouse, partner, friend) is of an appropriate age, get your PSA test and remember:

  • An increased PSA should be investigated, but it doesn’t mean you have prostate cancer. There could be benign causes for the increase. Listen to your doctors recommendations for evaluation.
  • Even if prostate cancer is diagnosed, it does not mean radical treatment is necessary. Always discuss with your physician what your many options are.

As much as lab testing has its important role, it has its black eyes too. The Theranos saga is one of those. We have discussed on more than one occasion the dramatic rise and fall of the company and its Jobsian (Steve, not biblical) leader Elizabeth Holmes. The company claimed to be performing laboratory testing on minute amounts of blood drawn from a fingertip, but there were doubts about the validity of the company’s results.

After a series of investigations, inspections, and lost business partners, Ms Holmes announced yesterday that the company will be closing its labs, refrain from patient testing, and “will return our undivided attention to our miniLab platform.” I suppose at this point Holmes does feel more like the Old Testament Job than Apple’s Steve. I wonder if we will ever hear from Theranos again or if more like Jonah, it has disappeared inside a whale.

As for me, my lab just got re-accredited, our new house is coming along (more on that soon), and life is good. You don’t have to be a heart or bone surgeon to get it right!


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