Biomarkers: cancer’s tattletales
By Clayton Holtzman, Hutchinson Center science writer
Some of the latest and most promising research efforts underway at the Hutchinson Center are focused on what has become one of cancer’s hottest buzzwords: biomarkers.
This summer alone, the search for these biological clues has led to disclosures by Center scientists that may help detect lung and breast cancer earlier than ever before and even identify the most lethal forms of prostate cancer. Other efforts at the Center are focused on using biomarkers to predict treatment options for patients and provide a prognosis of how cancer cells will develop within individual patients.
Think of biomarkers as the byproducts of natural biological processes—and even the development of a disease. For example, healthy cells may release a key protein in response to the presence of cancer that are meant to repair or even kill cancer cells before they grow out of control and develop into a tumor.
The presence of these proteins—biomarkers—can help uncover a cancer that has been growing undetected. Advances in technology and medicine are allowing researchers to identify previously unknown biomarkers that exist at the molecular or genetic level, and then to decipher exactly what their presence means.
With so much potential, it is easy to see why biomarkers are generating excitement in the medical research field. But don’t jump on the biomarker bandwagon just yet.
Much has yet to be learned about biomarkers, and technical advances in the laboratory are only beginning to unlock their potential. Scientists are still struggling to identify them, confirm their correlation with cancer (their presence could also be caused by other diseases or natural functions within the body) and test them against certain therapies. It all takes time, expertise and a lot of money.
One recent effort underway at the Hutchinson Center has proven the feasibility of a system to evaluate large numbers of biomarkers at the same time. This can speed up the process of identifying which ones could be useful for personalizing cancer treatment. This task is being led by the Center’s Christopher Kemp and Samir Hanash, and it could help science get over a hump that has significantly limited the use of biomarkers to date.
Most recently, a team led by Hanash discovered proteins in the blood that are associated with early lung cancer development in mice and humans. The advance brings the reality of a blood test for the early detection and diagnosis of lung cancer a step closer.
Others at the Hutchinson Center are also making contributions to the broad field of biomarker discovery and analysis.
The Data Management and Coordinating Center of the Early Detection Research Network, an initiative of the National Cancer Institute that started in 2000, is housed at the Hutchinson Center. The effort is aimed at testing and evaluating promising biomarkers for early cancer detection. The network is evaluating hundreds of biomarkers linked to dozens of cancer types and currently has more than 200 individual biomarkers listed on its website.