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Penile cancer research

Men and women discussing penile cancer

This page tells you about research into causes and treatment of cancer of the penis. You can find out about


A quick guide to what's on this page

Penile cancer research

All treatments must be fully researched before they can be adopted as standard treatment for everyone. This is so that we can be sure they work better than the treatments we already use. We also need to be sure that they are safe.

First of all, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. Only after we know that they are likely to be safe to test are they tried in people, in clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer and also supports many UK and international clinical trials.

Researchers are looking into new treatments and also new ways of using existing treatments, including


CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the Treating penile cancer section.



Why research is important

First of all, treatments are developed and tested in laboratories. For ethical and safety reasons, experimental treatments must be tested in the laboratory before they can be tried in patients. If a treatment described here is said to be at the laboratory stage of research, it is not ready for patients. It is not available either within or outside the NHS. 

Cancer Research UK supports a lot of UK laboratory research into cancer.

Tests in patients are called clinical trials. Cancer Research UK supports many UK and international clinical trials.

We have information about what trials are

If you are interested in taking part in a trial, visit our searchable database of clinical trials.

If there is a trial you are interested in, print it off and take it to your own specialist. If the trial is suitable for you, your doctor will need to make the referral to the research team. The database also has information about closed trials and trial results.

The video below tells you more about clinical trials:

View a transcript of the video (Opens in a new window)


Research issues in penile cancer

The stage of penile cancer gives doctors an idea of the chance of a cure. Treatment with surgery or radiotherapy can cure many early stage cancers of the penis. Treatment is more difficult when penis cancer spreads to nearby tissues (locally advanced cancer). It is also more difficult when it spreads to another part of the body (metastatic cancer). Doctors can usually find the best treatment by using randomised controlled trials. This is hard with penis cancer because so few men get advanced cancer.


Light therapy (PDT) for early penile cancer

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) is an experimental treatment. It uses a chemical that makes skin cells more sensitive to light. Doctors might use it to treat in situ cancers of the penis, including erythroplasia of Queyrat or Bowens disease. These are pre cancerous conditions which means they can develop into cancers. They affect the squamous cells of the penis on the glans under the foreskin.

You have removal of the foreskin (circumcision) before you have PDT to your penis.

When you have the PDT your doctor puts some anaesthetic cream on the area to be treated. They remove any crusted skin and apply a cream containing the light sensitising chemical. The cream stays on for between 3 and 6 hours. Your doctor then shines a very strong light onto the area for up to 45 minutes. The light kills any cells that have absorbed the light sensitising drug.

After treatment the treated skin is more sensitive to light, both bright daylight and indoor lighting. You need to protect the area from light for 36 hours. You also need to keep the area clean and dry but after 36 hours you can bathe or shower as normal. The area will probably form a scab, which usually falls off after about 3 weeks.

You can usually have this treatment as an outpatient and you can have the treatment more than once.


Chemotherapy research

A phase 2 trial named EORTC 30992 looked at chemotherapy in men with advanced penile cancer. The men on this trial had the combination of chemotherapy drugs cisplatin and irinotecan. They then went on for possible treatment with surgery. The results didn't show much benefit for the men getting the combined chemotherapy. This type of treatment before surgery needs more research.

The Penile TPF trial added docetaxel to the standard treatment with cisplatin and fluorouracil. This trial was for men with  locally advanced or metastatic cancer of the penis. In these men, doctors couldn't remove their cancers. The treatment aimed to shrink the cancer so that some men could have surgery. Doctors called the treatment TPF chemotherapy. They wanted to know how well this treatment worked and to see if it was better than cisplatin and fluorouracil alone. The results showed that the combination of the 3 drugs didn’t work for most of the men. In the small number of men that it did work, there was a good response.

The VinCaP trial is looking at the use of vinflunine chemotherapy. It is for men with penile cancer that has spread outside the penis or to another part of the body. The researchers want to find out if vinflunine works as well as other chemotherapy drugs and if it causes fewer side effects.

The JAVA-P trial is looking at cabazitaxel (Jevtana) chemotherapy. It is for penile cancer that is locally advanced or has spread to another part of the body and has come back after treatment. The researchers want to know if this drug helps men with cancer of the penis. They also want to learn more about the side effects and how they affect quality of life.

Researchers are looking at doing a trial  for men with penile cancer that has spread to nearby tissues. They want to know if chemotherapy or chemoradiotherapy before surgery is helpful. The same researchers will also look at men who have a high risk of their cancer coming back. These men will have their groin nodes (inguinal nodes) removed. Researchers want to know if removing their pelvic lymph nodes as well has any benefit. This trial hasn't started yet.


Research with scans

The MRI-PET study is testing a new type of scan, called a hybrid MRI-PET scan, in men with penile cancer. This scan combines an MRI scan and a PET scan. Researchers want to know how good this scan is at picking up cancer cells that have spread to the lymph nodes in the groin.

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Updated: 7 April 2016