The numbers are staggering. As of the date of this brief commentary, the World Health Organization has reported more than 4.6 million cases and upwards of 311,840 deaths worldwide from the COVID-19 pandemic. The virus responsible for the disease known as COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is highly infectious and the risks are clearly significant for nearly everyone. Nonetheless, the risk is much higher for some of us than for others. In particular, we have begun to understand the distinct risks faced by men with prostate cancer and the unique intersection of biological, health, and lifestyle factors in COVID-19 and prostate cancer. Although there is a great deal yet to be learned, there are indeed many aspects of the overlap between COVID-19 and prostate cancer that we have already been able to discern and which we have begun to address. Perhaps most striking, older men who are at greatest risk for prostate cancer may also be at greatest risk for COVID-19.
Biology Makes a Difference – COVID-19 and prostate cancer share some common biological features. A gene responsible for male traits or characteristics, the androgen receptor, which is dysregulated or impaired in prostate cancer, is also important in COVID-19. Androgens can suppress the body’s immune response to infections and may explain the reason for higher rates of infection in men. At the same time, a gene known as TMPRSS2 is also highly expressed in both COVID-19 and prostate cancer. In fact, these issues may be related—more androgens could signify greater expression of TMPRSS2 which could create greater susceptibility to the virus. These biological risks are compounded by a number of critical health conditions and lifestyle issues.
Common Risk Factors – Studies from around the world have shown that several chronic health conditions or comorbidities create greater risk for contracting the virus, becoming more severely ill, or dying from COVID-19. It is indeed concerning that many of these are the same risks we see in prostate cancer: hypertension, diabetes, COPD, and obesity. Prostate cancer patients with multiple comorbid conditions may be at even greater risk. Cancer patients in general have weakened immune systems which makes them more vulnerable to infectious disease, further compounding the unique factors affecting men with prostate cancer. Some of the lifestyle factors that may contribute to chronic health conditions also appear to be risk factors for COVID-19 infection, most importantly smoking and high levels of alcohol consumption. We are especially concerned about men who are active smokers, as smoking has been clearly linked to worse outcomes in men who have become ill with COVID-19. We believe that the guidance we generally offer to prostate cancer patients is as, if not more, relevant now in this time of the COVID pandemic—adopt healthy habits, including smoking cessation, a nutritious diet, exercise, and proper management of chronic conditions most notably diabetes.
Looking Ahead – As the pandemic evolves and we look to the future, we are focused on ways to prevent the spread of infection and to create viable treatments for those who become ill. Worldwide, more than nine million men currently face decisions about biopsy, active surveillance, surgery, radiation, hormonal therapy, or chemotherapy related to prostate cancer in the context of COVID-19 and another 3 million more will find themselves facing these decisions by the end of this year. We are working intensely to address their needs. More than 1,460 clinical trials are underway to test therapeutic interventions to treat COVID-19. What we have come to understand about the shared biology between COVID-19 and prostate cancer and common risk factors will be invaluable. We must learn everything we can about the ways in which the virus impacts lung function as it relates to prostate cancer—the respiratory symptoms that result from infection have been especially lethal—and continue to explore the role of androgens in response to new drugs. Many drugs originally intended and approved for other uses are being tested for potential “repurposing” and new drugs and vaccines are under investigation. New clinical guidelines have been established for the treatment of prostate cancer patients at risk of or for those who have contracted the virus, and these guidelines will continue to evolve and be updated.
A Global Perspective – It is critical that we understand the COVID-19 pandemic both on the level of individual experience and global impact. For prostate cancer patients, this means recognizing the way that biology, related chronic health conditions, and lifestyle choices come together to impact the risk of disease, disease severity, and outcomes. Prostate cancer patients and their doctors must come together to find the way forward during this time of unprecedented crisis and opportunities for improving outcomes and quality of life for prostate cancer patients.
Ash Tewari, Zach Dovey and Dimple Chakravarty