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The Search for New Cancer Biomarkers

The Search for New Cancer Biomarkers

Biomarkers have a range of uses from detecting and diagnosing medical conditions to staging and prognosis.

However, despite being valuable clinical tools, they also have their limitations and new biomarkers for the common health conditions of our time, such as cancer, are needed.

Discovering new biomarkers which can detect cancers even before symptoms emerge, or be used to decide on the most appropriate course of therapy for a patient are a particular priority.

Biomarkers also play an important role as we move towards an era of more personalised medicine. They can be used to give people more targeted chemotherapy, whereby tumour exposure is maximised, while keeping toxic side effects to a minimum.

A landmark report in Australia recently concluded that biomarker researcher should be prioritised to help deal with the most common cancers in the country. According to Professor Ian Olver, director of the Sansom Institute for Health Research at the University of South Australia, fast-tracking research into biomarkers over the next five years “has the potential to transform cancer care more than anything seen over the past 50 years”.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that biomarkers are the silver bullet that can speed up diagnosis and pinpoint the best treatment approach for the patient, maximising the response while minimising toxicities,” he said.

But not all biomarkers give a clear indication of whether someone has an illness. Although PSA is used as a biomarker for prostate cancer, it is known to be elevated in benign prostate conditions too. The CA-125 biomarker used for ovarian cancer can also be elevated in benign conditions.

Biomarkers with better sensitivity are therefore needed to help reduce the number of false negatives, while improved specificity can help reduce the number of false positives.

Technological developments in areas such as genomics and proteomics means new biomarkers can now be identified more quickly. Although most tumour biomarkers are proteins, patterns of gene expression and DNA changes are now also being used as tumour biomarkers.

The Human Protein Atlas program is one example of how proteomics is being used to identify new cancer biomarkers. The program has created an open access database with millions of high-resolution images showing the spatial distribution of proteins in normal human tissues and different cancer types.

It was recently used to identify the RNA binding protein (RBM3) as a potential new biomarker for a range of cancer types. RBM3 can be used as a biomarker for stratifying cancer patients into different risk categories for a number of cancers including breast, ovarian and colon cancer. It may also be a good prognostic marker for breast cancer.

Analysing RBM3 expression may be useful for determining appropriate treatment for patients with malignant melanoma because it could be used to identify those who are at high risk of metastatic disease.

Big data is another invaluable resource for identifying new biomarkers. It gives researchers unprecedented access to large cohorts of biological data which they can analyse to identify new biomarkers. Partnerships are now emerging between researchers working across a number of sectors such as biotech, pharma and academia, so they can share data.

Once potential new biomarkers are identified, they need to be validated and shown to provide accurate clinical information. This means they need to be reproducible, easy to detect, indicative and affordable.

At Source Bioscience, we test for several common cancer biomarkers and are constantly working to expand our test menu to include analysis of other biomarkers of clinical utility.


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