Measurement challenges in detecting cancer biomarkers

July 27, 2005

In cancer research, biomarkers are molecules that indicate the presence of cancer in the body. Most are based on abnormal changes or mutations in genes, RNA, proteins and metabolites. Since the molecular changes that occur during tumor development can take place over a number of years, biomarkers potentially can be used to detect cancers early, determine prognosis and monitor disease progression and therapeutic response. Candidate biomarkers, however, frequently are found only in relatively low concentrations amid a sea of other biomolecules, so both biomarker research and possible diagnostic tests depend critically on the ability to make highly sensitive and accurate biochemical measurements.

A special August workshop at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) will examine the measurement challenges posed by two important biomarker classes, measurement of DNA methylation and serum proteomics. The addition of methyl groups (a molecule with one carbon and three hydrogen atoms) at certain key sites on DNA is known to alter the expression of genes, and might serve as an indicator of when cancer-related genes are "turned on or off." Serum proteomics involves reliably detecting trace levels of proteins associated with cancer cells. Both approaches have been hampered by the lack of reproducibility and consistency in measurements.

The workshop on Standards, Methods, Assays, Reagents and Technologies (SMART) for Early Cancer Detection and Diagnosis, jointly sponsored by NIST and the Early Detection Research Network (EDRN) of the National Cancer Institute will compare the performance characteristics of different analytical platforms for DNA methylation and serum proteomics, assess the needs for standard methods, assays and reagents for cancer biomarker development and validation, and make recommendations for the development of Standard Reference Materials and standard operating procedures. The SMART workshop will be held at the NIST site in Gaithersburg, Md., from Aug. 18-19, 2005. Details are available at

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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