A really interesting idea that seems to be growing in popularity is the concept of fluid-based biomarkers from blood, urine, saliva etc, as opposed to invasive tumour biopsies. A recent paper in Cancer Research took a look at this novel and much needed concept (reference below). 

One of the biggest challenges in oncology at the moment is finding easier and more convenient ways of identifying appropriate patients who might be best suited for a given therapy.  In clinical trials, often tests are developed as useful biomarkers based on tumour biopsies.  However, once a drug is approved, Community Oncologists often find their patients older, frailer and with a poorer performance status or more advanced disease and thus unresectable. Earlier detection of asymptomatic patients would also be useful, since in general, the earlier the patient is diagnosed, the better their long term chances are.

There is a lot of potential value, therefore, in developing fluid-based biomarkers and tests since the majority of cancer patients are treated in the Community, rather than Academic, setting.

In leukemias, FISH and QT-PCR testing have become standard, largely because it is easy to compare a blood sample with that of a bone marrow sample to validate test results.  In solid tumours though, that has generally been less easy. Even the FISH test for HER-2 positive women with breast cancer has not been without it's controversies over the years.  

At recent cancer meetings such as ASCO and AACR, I have noticed an increasing number of early surrogate markers being explored in solid tumours such as circulating tumour cells (CTCs) in prostate cancer as a more viable marker than PSA, as the authors also discussed:

"Fluid sampling has advantages over imaging as it is widely accepted, readily repeated, convenient, noninvasive, and low cost. Biomarkers in body fluids have the potential to detect a wide variety of primary tumors and metastases located throughout the body. Fluid biomarkers include a variety of components in blood, urine, or other fluids that reflect the presence of a tumor in the body. These include circulating tumor cells (CTC) and macromolecules such as lipids, proteins, RNA, microRNA, and DNA that originate from tumor cells."

Source: Martin et al.,

It was interesting to see the development of Pfizer's crizotinib in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) with ALK mutations emerge recently.  While Pfizer should be applauded for the speed with which they have developed the drug after the mutation was discovered, the development of the mutation test has clearly not been without its challenges. 

A number of patient blogs complained about the time taken to produce the results from the tumour biopsies (several weeks to a month compared to say, 48 hrs for blood tests) and also in some cases, that their own physician ordered tests were not accepted, requiring another test validated by a central laboratory, sometimes with differing results. This does not augur well for an easy to use commercial diagnostic test for ALK if there are variations in the results. 

Patients with advanced lung cancer often don't have a lot of time so this will be an issue to them and their physicians. Part of the reason for the delay is that tumour biopsy tests often require DNA sequencing to be performed, which inevitably takes time. A validated blood test would have a huge advantage in terms of time and convenience, but whether it is practically possible in an example like this, I don't know. 

Whether a validated blood test is being developed in parallel isn't yet clear, but lung biopsies in the community setting are not routine in the way they are for breast cancer, for example.  Finding suitable patients will therefore be akin to looking for needles in a haystack as the data so far suggests that the number of patients who were ALK positive in the NSCLC trials that looked for the mutation was around 5%.  I'm not sure if this will extrapolate to the broader lung cancer universe though, as patients in a clinical trial are typically different from those in the general cancer population.

Meanwhile, another other interesting trend that is emerging is microRNA:

"In addition to proteins, mRNAs are promising biomarkers, and microarrays represent a powerful approach for their discovery in blood.  A study using custom spotted arrays published in 2001 identified a signature of 12 genes whose mRNA expression was elevated in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) of breast cancer patients." 

Source: Martin et al.,

The number of articles, papers, abstracts and presentations on microRNA has increased at a tremendous rate over the last 2 years.  At the AACR Molecular Targets meeting last November, it seemed as though 1 in 3 abstracts mentioned the subject in a variety of different ways from prognosis to early resistance. This is one area I'll be following to see what interesting new concepts emerge. I've had a few requests for more information on microRNA, so this will be the topic of a forthcoming blog post.

The ultimate question as always, though, is what does this all mean?

Clearly, earlier detection of disease is useful for prognosis, but predicting the impact of therapeutic intervention is also important. If we can develop biomarkers for determining which drug might work optimally for a given patient or subset, that would alleviate a lot of the pressure on healthcare systems and reducing patient exposure to drugs that would not work. At present, there are probably more tests developed than actually used in practice, but incorporating them into large scale clinical trials as part of a battery of tests may well provide more useful information in the near future across a variety of different cancer types. 

Time will tell, but it makes a lot of sense to incorporate a vast battery of surrogate biomarker tests upfront and then track what happens over time, as the Medivation trial with MDV3100 has shown with PSA and CTC's in prostate cancer, to offer a practical example.  You never know which of the biomarkers tested will emerge as useful in any given tumour type, so testing more rather than fewer may have a higher chance of hitting the bullseye.

rb2 large gray Fluid based early detection biomarkers in cancer
Martin, K., Fournier, M., Reddy, G., & Pardee, A. (2010). A Need for Basic Research on Fluid-Based Early Detection Biomarkers Cancer Research, 70 (13), 5203-5206 DOI: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-10-0987