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What Exactly is a Biomarker Anyway? Part I

Blog written by John Kalns


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Biomarker… Biomarker… You’ve heard of it, right? I mean, we hear the word “biomarker” all the time. But what exactly is a biomarker? Well, in this blog post, we’ll explore the term “biomarker” together.

The Concept of a Biomarker

Biomarker is a confusing term. However, we are familiar with its use. Well, more familiar than you might realize. For example, let’s imagine we’re looking at someone we know. We see their face, eyes, and posture, and we might even have a brief conversation with them.

When we notice someone who might look tired, we say, “Wow! You look exhausted.” But what’s really happening here is our minds are registering simple signs (such as sleepy eyes, a slacking posture, and tone of voice) as the physiological phenomenon of tiredness. These simple signs are actually biomarkers. So we’re using our observation and experience to make a conclusion about this person’s physical state.

Does Tiredness Mean Someone is Sick?

Physicians and other health care providers are highly skilled at identifying subtle signs, or biomarkers, that most people wouldn’t notice. Still, even if two doctors have the same patient and the same limited (but complex) information, they may disagree over what the data means and what should be done.

Ancient Healing & Modern Medicine

For centuries, the only biomarkers that were available to healers were limited to the appearance of the patient. This includes how the patient felt, the shape/structure of organs in the abdomen as well as other parts of the body; any painful touches or movements, skin temperature, body weight, and how the patient walked and talked. It also includes how a patient’s ears, eyes, mouth, throat and other orifices look; the taste/appearance of urine and the appearance of stool; smell of the breath, and finally, any patient-provided information about diet, lifestyle, and anything else that might be considered useful information.

Physicians continue to collect much of this data during routine physical examinations, and this information is still very useful for quickly understanding the health of an individual.

Tests & Scoring Systems

There is one big drawback to that method: it’s not very objective, meaning we can’t get a single number out of our very complex assessments. Let’s say we developed a “scoring system,” on a scale of 1-5, for how tired someone appears. So if an individual was a 3, we’d have a problem because two people may assess this individual and come up with different scores.

Tests and scoring systems are still used extensively in modern medicine, specifically in areas where objective biomarkers haven’t been discovered yet.

Biomarkers Meet Science

Over the last 400 years or so, our understanding of biological systems has grown considerably, and the past 100 years in medicine have been astonishing.

Because of our understanding, we’ve been able to develop new medical treatments, vaccines, drugs, and lifestyle changes that have produced dramatic increases in longevity. And can you guess what played a central role in this development? Yep, biomarkers.

Today, thousands of biomarkers have been identified, providing a wealth of information (in exceptional detail) on the function of our bodies. Even just 50 years ago, physicians could only imagine something like this!

The evaluation of biomarkers accomplishes many tasks, including:

    • Early diagnosis of serious diseases
    • Monitoring of drug or other treatment effects
    • Keeping someone healthy (this is perhaps the most important)

Physiological Phenomena

The biggest change that’s occurred recently is the ability of physiological phenomena to be reduced to numerical values that everyone can agree on. We can use numbers to perform statistics and compare healthy people with those that have diseases.

Up Next

Stay tuned for part two of What Exactly is a Biomarker Anyway? because we’ll be finishing up this story!

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