What is a Biomarker?

What is a Biomarker?

The term “biomarker”, a portmanteau of “biological marker”, refers to a broad subcategory of medical signs – that is, objective indications of medical state observed from outside the patient – which can be measured accurately and reproducibly.

Medical signs stand in contrast to medical symptoms, which are limited to those indications of health or illness perceived by patients themselves. There are several more precise definitions of biomarkers in the literature, and they fortunately overlap considerably.

In 1998, the National Institutes of Health Biomarkers Definitions Working Group defined a biomarker as “a characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacologic responses to a therapeutic intervention.”

A joint venture on chemical safety, the International Programme on Chemical Safety, led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and in coordination with the United Nations and the International Labor Organization, has defined a biomarker as “any substance, structure, or process that can be measured in the body or its products and influence or predict the incidence of outcome or disease”.

An even broader definition takes into account not just incidence and outcome of disease, but also the effects of treatments, interventions, and even unintended environmental exposure, such as to chemicals or nutrients. In their report on the validity of biomarkers in environment risk assessment, the WHO has stated that a true definition of biomarkers includes “almost any measurement reflecting an interaction between a biological system and a potential hazard, which may be chemical, physical, or biological.

The measured response may be functional and physiological, biochemical at the cellular level, or a molecular interaction”. Examples of biomarkers include everything from pulse and blood pressure through basic chemistries to more complex laboratory tests of blood and other tissues. Medical signs have a long history of use in clinical practice—as old as medical practice itself—and biomarkers are merely the most objective, quantifiable medical signs modern laboratory science allows us to measure reproducibly. The use of biomarkers, and in particular laboratory-measured biomarkers, in clinical research is somewhat newer, and the best approaches to this practice are still being developed and refined. The key issue at hand is determining the relationship between any given measurable biomarker and relevant clinical endpoints.


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