Exciting new diagnostic tools are now in development and will become a part of clinical practice, namely the use of biomarkers to determine current or future disease or physiological conditions in patients.
A biomarker is an indicator of disease or physiological state of an individual. For example, a fever or a high white blood count often indicates an infection or disease in a patient. These are biomarkers with which were all familiar. These biomarkers can be quantified to indicate whether the patients condition is normal or diseased, that is, a fever may be measured in degrees by a thermometer, and the count of white blood cells can be measured in a given volume of blood.
Biomarkers are and will be assuming a greater importance in a number of other critical areas:
-The ability to detect the presence of a particular gene or chemical in the body may allow a physician to make a judgment whether the patient is susceptible to a specific disease, long before symptoms manifest themselves. This has very exciting implications since the ability of a physician to harness this tool will usher in the age of personalized medicine, that is, where a treatment is developed for a specific persons genetic makeup. Treatment or preventive measures can thus be taken early when they will have the most benefit.
-The presence of a specific substance in the blood of a patient may tell a physician how quickly that person will age. For example, it will be possible to determine in a 30 year old, how fast he or she will develop specific characteristics of old age. The process of aging can then possibly be slowed by changes in diet, or other lifestyle changes.
-One of the major areas of development will involve use of biomarkers in diagnostic imaging. By use of quantitative measurements in imaging, the radiologist will not have to estimate intuitively the progression of a tumor, or if the tumor has responded to a particular drug therapy, but can measure precisely in quantitative terms how fast a tumor has grown, for example. This holds tremendous potential for patient care, because the doctor will thus be able to make a more accurate judgment about the patients condition, and thus enhance patient management, for example, making a change in the particular drug which is being administered to the patient.
The development of sophisticated and quantitative biomarkers will require conducting many clinical trials involving significant expenditure of resources and time to achieve their potential. However, the use of biomarkers holds great potential in improving the delivery of healthcare to patients.