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Biomarkers Guide

Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

Biomarkers are measurable indicators that allow doctors to monitor processes in the human body. They are important for the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.

As many processes occur in the body, many biomarkers can be used to monitor those processes.

This article will give an overview of the main types of biomarkers that exist and their functions.

What are biomarkers?

There’s no universally accepted definition for biomarkers, or biological markers as they’re also known. But as a short description, they are an objective and accurate measuring tool for human health.

With the help of biomarkers, doctors can measure biological function, pathological processes related to medical conditions, and the body’s response to therapeutic intervention.

Biomarkers can help diagnose and indicate the stage of a condition, make predictions about the condition's outcome, and track how the body responds to treatment. The ability to track the body’s response to drugs means biomarkers are important for drug development trials. 1 2 3

What types of biomarkers exist?

Biomarkers are split into groups according to their purpose. Several biomarkers have more than 1 purpose, meaning they fall into more than 1 group.

Biomarkers can be divided into groups as follows: 3 4

  • Diagnostic biomarkers: for detecting or confirming whether or not you have a condition. They can also indicate which subtype of the condition is present.
  • Monitoring biomarkers: for checking the status of a condition or detecting the effects of therapy. These biomarkers are critical in clinical trials.
  • Pharmacodynamic/response biomarkers: for checking the body’s response to a medical condition or intervention with a medical product. They are also useful in clinical trials.
  • Predictive biomarkers: for predicting the likelihood of someone reacting to a medical product.
  • Prognostic biomarkers: for identifying the likelihood that a disease will recur or progress.
  • Safety biomarkers: for indicating the chance that someone will develop negative side effects to treatment.
  • Susceptibility/risk biomarkers: for indicating the potential of someone developing a condition.

What are digital biomarkers?

Digital biomarkers have been evolving rapidly over recent years. Through sensors in wearables, scientists and therapists can collect data on bodily processes, motion, and psychological state.

Digital biomarkers can be particularly useful because they can provide data outside a clinical setting over extended periods. This allows therapists to collect larger data sets, resulting in more accurate monitoring, the possibility to map triggers for specific symptoms, and therapy better suited to the person's needs. 3

What are cardiac biomarkers?

Cardiac biomarkers, also known as cardiovascular biomarkers, are used to detect and monitor conditions of the heart and blood vessels. These biomarkers can help with the screening and early diagnosis of heart and blood vessel conditions, which helps to reduce their fatality.

Some important risk biomarkers for cardiovascular disease are HDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, hemoglobin, and hemoglobin A1c. Troponin is another biomarker that is important for detecting damage to the heart muscle. It is often used to help diagnose heart attacks. 2 5 6 7 8

What are cancer biomarkers?

Cancer biomarkers, also called tumor markers, are critical for diagnosing and treating cancer. As many different types of cancer exist, the subtype must be diagnosed as early as possible so that doctors can treat it effectively.

Tumor markers help to determine: 9 10 11

  • which type of cancer is present
  • the stage of the cancer
  • the outlook of the condition
  • the most effective treatment strategy
  • how well a treatment method is working
  • if there are still cancer cells remaining after treatment or if there are cancer cells that have returned.

Besides this, getting your most important biomarkers checked as part of a routine health screening is possible. 9 10

When would a doctor check blood biomarkers?

Your doctor could check your blood biomarkers if they suspect any condition that they can confirm through a blood panel test.

Doctors may also check blood biomarkers during treatment for a condition to see how well your body responds and to act quickly if anything about the treatment needs to change.

It's also common for doctors to check blood biomarkers after treatment to see if they are within their normal ranges and to ensure the condition hasn't returned.

Besides this, it’s also possible to get your most important biomarkers checked as part of a routine health screening. 12

How often should biomarkers be checked?

It depends on the purpose of the test. If a condition is present or you have a higher risk of a genetic condition, then your doctor will check for specific biomarkers related to that condition. In this case, doctors may carry out tests more frequently.

For example, people with liver disease may benefit from regular bilirubin level checks, which allow doctors to monitor the condition of the liver. 12 13

To screen for possible conditions, your doctor may recommend a blood test panel once or twice a year. This test includes:

  • a complete blood count, which evaluates each type of cell in your blood and provides vital information about your overall health
  • a lipid panel that tests your triglycerides and cholesterol, which is important for conditions of the heart and blood vessels
  • a basic or comprehensive metabolic panel test to assess the function of vital organs such as the kidneys, liver, and parathyroids.

Biomarkers FAQs

Q: What are inflammatory biomarkers?

A: Inflammatory biomarkers can help diagnose inflammation in the body. They check for activation of the immune system. Examples are a red blood cell count, a white blood cell count, a hemoglobin count, or a C-reactive protein test.

Q: Where can I check blood biomarkers?

A: A general practitioner can check your blood biomarkers, or you can do it yourself with an at-home test kit.