Uses of Biomarkers in Cancer Research


Uses of Biomarkers in Cancer Research

A cancer biomarker refers to a substance or process that is indicative of the presence of cancer in the body. A biomarker may be a molecule secreted by a tumor or a specific response of the body to the presence of cancer. Genetic, epigenetic, proteomic, glycomic, and imaging biomarkers can be used for cancer diagnosis, prognosis, and epidemiology. Ideally, such biomarkers can be assayed in non-invasively collected biofluids like blood or serum.

Developing drug targets

In addition to their use in cancer medicine, biomarkers are often used throughout the cancer drug discovery process. For instance, in the 1960s, researchers discovered the majority of patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia possessed a particular genetic abnormality on chromosomes 9 and 22 dubbed the Philadelphia chromosome. When these two chromosomes combine they create a cancer-causing gene known as BCR-ABL. In such patients, this gene acts as the principle initial point in all of the physiological manifestations of the leukemia. For many years, the BCR-ABL was simply used as a biomarker to stratify a certain subtype of leukemia. However, drug developers were eventually able to develop imatinib, a powerful drug that effectively inhibited this protein and significantly decreased production of cells containing the Philadelphia chromosome.

Surrogate endpoints

Another promising area of biomarker application is in the area of surrogate endpoints. In this application, biomarkers act as stand-ins for the effects of a drug on cancer progression and survival. Ideally, the use of validated biomarkers would prevent patients from having to undergo tumor biopsies and lengthy clinical trials to determine if a new drug worked. In the current standard of care, the metric for determining a drug's effectiveness is to check if it has decreased cancer progression in humans and ultimately whether it prolongs survival. However, successful biomarker surrogates could save substantial time, effort, and money if failing drugs could be eliminated from the development pipeline before being brought to clinical trials.

Some ideal characteristics of surrogate endpoint biomarkers include:

  • Biomarker should be involved in process that causes the cancer
  • Changes in biomarker should correlate with changes in the disease
  • Levels of biomarkers should be high enough that they can be measured easily and reliably
  • Levels or presence of biomarker should readily distinguish between normal, cancerous, and precancerous tissue
  • Effective treatment of the cancer should change the level of the biomarker
  • Level of the biomarker should not change spontaneously or in response to other factors not related to the successful treatment of the cancer

Two areas in particular that are receiving attention as surrogate markers include circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and circulating miRNAs. Both these markers are associated with the number of tumor cells present in the blood, and as such, are hoped to provide a surrogate for tumor progression and metastasis. However, significant barriers to their adoption include the difficulty of enriching, identifying, and measuring CTC and miRNA levels in blood. New technologies and research are likely necessary for their translation into clinical care.

For articles related to cancer, visit

To submit manuscripts, email us at

Media Contact


Journal Manager

Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention

WhatsApp: +3225889658