In Australia, and to a smaller but increasing extent in the U.S., urologists are moving away from the traditional transrectal (TR) biopsy. A much lower risk of infection is a big reason why.
Nobody wants a prostate biopsy, but we’re stuck with it. Literally. Multiple times. And for the vast majority of men (more than 2 million in Europe and North America alone), those hollow, ultra-sharp biopsy needles go right through the rectum to reach the prostate. Unfortunately, the rectum is just chock full of bacteria, and this, in turn, means a couple of things: the risk of infection and sometimes sepsis, and the need for antibiotics, some of them quite powerful.
Because infection can be such a serious complication, urologists have gone to great lengths to try to minimize it – particularly for men with a chronic illness such as diabetes, men with prostatitis or a urinary tract infection, or men who use a urinary catheter. These men at higher risk often need a longer course of antibiotics, or different antibiotics. Some options to reduce the risk of infection are to use more than one antibiotic for extra coverage, or to try to tailor the antibiotic to the specific bacteria found in a man’s rectum.
Before a TR biopsy, “we routinely swab a man’s rectum to see what bacteria he has, and we give him antibiotics based on those bacteria,” says University of Pittsburgh-Western Maryland urologist Michael Gorin, M.D. “But despite our best intentions, sometimes these antibiotics fail to prevent an infection. Additionally, antibiotics can cause complications on their own.”
If only there were alternative. Wait! There is! It’s a different way to reach the prostate: through the perineum, the area between the scrotum and rectum; this is called transperineal biopsy. Now, don’t get too excited: Neither kind of prostate biopsy is ever going to be fun. However, the perineal approach has some important advantages. One big one: zero risk of infection! Zip. Nada! “With the transperineal approach,” says Gorin, we don’t have to give any antibiotics, because instead of passing through the rectum, the needles go through an area of skin, which can be thoroughly cleansed before the procedure.” Gorin pioneered the transperineal approach at Johns Hopkins, and is second author of an article that is shaking up the world of prostate biopsy: “TRexit 2020: why the time to abandon transrectal prostate biopsy starts now.”
The paper’s first author, and a leading proponent of the transperineal approach, is Australian urologist Jeremy Grummet, M.B.B.S., associate professor of Urology at Monash University in Melbourne. Grummet made a formidable argument in favor of transperineal biopsy at the American Urological Association’s annual meeting in 2017, with a PowerPoint presentation that featured, memorably, a slide of an angry poop emoji with these talking points: “TR biopsy is dirty,” and “We use antibiotics instead of basic hygiene.”
That image was followed by a picture of a headline from Bloomberg News, about fears of an “Antibiotic Apocalypse” being stoked by antibiotic-laden chickens. What’s happening in big agriculture, Grummet says, “is a very close analogy to what we do in hospitals. There’s an extraordinary lack of hygiene, replaced by the use of antibiotics. It works in the short term, but it also produces an immense amount of antibiotic resistance.” The antibiotics often used with TR biopsies are fluoroquinolones; however, “fluoroquinolone-resistant organisms, also known as ‘Superbugs,’ have been identified in 10 to 30 percent of patients undergoing rectal swab cultures before biopsies,” Grummet notes, “and the incidence of hospitalization due to severe infections after prostate biopsy is increasing.” A 2015 study of 455 patients in a VA hospital in Boston found that 2.4 percent of the men developed sepsis after prostate biopsy, and 90 percent had fluoroquinolone-resistant bacteria. In addition, side effects of fluoroquinolones can be serious or potentially disabling, including depression, disorientation and agitation, tendonitis and tendon rupture, pain in the muscles and extremities, and gait disturbances.
Lack of hygiene? But… but… don’t men do an enema before biopsy? That cleans it, right? Sadly, not really. An enema flushes out poop, but it does not eradicate rectal bacteria. It can’t. “You can imagine, sticking a needle into a rectum, which is purpose-built for feces, absolutely crawling with bacteria. It’s a dirty procedure; you take a clean needle, and put it through a contaminated area: that’s what a TR does every time. You’re playing roulette with your needles; you have no idea if you’re inoculating bacteria with rectal flora into the prostate. We try to overcome that with antibiotics.”
Going through the rectum, Grummet continues, goes against the basic surgical principle of sterile technique. “Why do we wear gloves, why do we wash our hands? Yet we completely turn a blind eye to that whole principle when we do a transrectal biopsy.”
What if, he says, “we could eradicate prostate biopsy sepsis? And what if we could do it without using big-gun antibiotics on a global scale? We can and we have.” In a multi-center study of transperineal biopsy in Australia, Grummet and colleagues showed that of 245 consecutive men who received transperineal biopsy, there were zero readmissions for infection. “Our series has since grown to 1,194 consecutive cases at five centers across Melbourne, with no complications and zero hospital admissions for infection.”
The actual transperineal approach, itself, is not new, notes PCF-funded investigator Edward Schaeffer, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of Urology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Transperineal biopsies have been around for several decades, and offer an opportunity to sample all regions of the prostate very efficiently” (more on this below). However, there was a good reason why they weren’t popular: “The limitations of transperineal biopsies in the past were that they required general anesthesia, as they are quite painful. Newer techniques in regional prostate blocks have enabled the use of in-office, awake, transperineal approaches.” Using the nerve block provides more protection from pain than local anesthetic alone.
This may prove to be the big selling point for many urologists, says Grummet. “TR biopsy has been, certainly in Australia, a well-reimbursed procedure. You can do it in five minutes in your office. Because transperineal biopsy traditionally required a general anesthetic, it took longer and used hospital resources and personnel. It has been less convenient.”
Although Gorin routinely does transperineal biopsy in the outpatient setting, using a nerve block and local anesthetic, it’s a little different in Australia. In his home state of Victoria (over 5 million people), transperineal biopsy is more commonly performed than TR biopsy,” says Grummet. “In our practice, no one gets a TR biopsy; the transperineal procedure is common across Australia.” However, he adds, it is still done mainly in the hospital, under general anesthesia. “Only a few of us over here have shifted to local anesthetic. I have done only a handful with local anesthetic, and then COVID-19 hit,” and outpatient procedures were severely limited. Now that the country is opening up, he plans to do more transperineal biopsies with the local anesthetic and nerve block. “With the general anesthetic, transperineal biopsy is essentially perfect. But with the local nerve block, even if the pain relief is not perfect, if the overall greater good is to avoid infection, that is by far a bigger win than some mild discomfort. But if it’s too painful, we shouldn’t be doing it.”
Going in sideways: But wait! There’s more! With Johns Hopkins urologist Mohamad Allaf, M.D., Gorin developed a technique to perform MRI-guided prostate biopsy through the transperineal approach that is “not only cleaner; there’s reason to believe the transperineal approach is more accurate,” better able to sample the prostate’s anterior region – the area where cancer commonly develops in African American men.
Besides the risk of infection, there’s another big drawback to the TR approach: it’s hard to cover the entire prostate. Basically, as Schaeffer explains , if you think of a prostate as a house, the transrectal biopsy comes in from the basement. It’s pretty good at reaching the main floor, but not that great at reaching the attic. It’s a South to North approach. The transperineal approach goes from West to East, and instead of a house, Gorin uses the analogy of a car: “The needle comes in from the headlights to the tail lights, but it can go lower, from the front tires to the back tires, or higher, from the front windshield to the rear windshield.”
Is there a downside to the transperineal approach? Although there is not any published evidence, Grummet says, “there seems to be increased scarring of the apex of the prostate in patients who have had transperineal biopsy. That would make sense, because instead of moving the needle along the back of the prostate, which is what you do in TR biopsy, the needle in a transperineal biopsy is coming in at the apex. I certainly haven’t seen any evidence that it actually affects the outcome of surgery.” Another potential downside, as with TR biopsy, is of urinary retention, particularly in men with a large prostate who have more needle cores taken. “The more cores you take, the more swelling there is. Our published rate of retention is 2.5 percent; that is entirely reasonable. Urinary retention is not life-threatening like sepsis is; you put a catheter in, and you take it out the next day.” Another risk, as with the TR approach, is a “temporary, mild reduction of erectile function,” from inadvertently grazing the nerves involved in erection, “but this risk occurs in TR biopsy too.”
How can I get a transperineal biopsy? Unless you live in Australia, or you happen to live near one of the few places in the U.S. where they are being performed, you probably can’t. Yet. But that is expected to change fairly soon.
Personal note here: As I have written about earlier, a transperineal biopsy performed by Mike Gorin recently saved my husband’s life. I am biased in favor of this approach, because several urologists have told me that because of its location in the anterior of the prostate, behind the urethra, Mark’s cancer would have been missed with a TR biopsy. It was tiny, just 6 mm at the time of biopsy, 7 mm at the time of surgery, totally contained within the prostate, but very aggressive. Gleason 9 cancer, diagnosed when he was just 58. Thank God we got it out of there.
In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.” As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.
©Janet Farrar Worthington