Tumor Markers

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What’s new in tumor marker research?

Because it’s important to find cancer early and be able to follow it during or after treatment, researchers are looking for new and better tumor markers. But as doctors have learned more about cancer, they’ve found that the level of a single protein or other substance in the blood is often not the best marker for the disease. They’re still looking for better ways to find and follow people with different types of cancer.


The study of patterns of DNA changes (or mutations) is called genomics. We know that most cancers have changes in their DNA, the molecules that direct the functions of all cells. It’s these changes that turn a normal cell into a cancer cell. By looking for DNA changes in blood, stool, or urine, scientists may be able to find cancers very early. Looking at the patterns of changes is likely to prove more useful than looking for single DNA changes.


Another newer approach is called proteomics. This technology looks at the patterns of all the proteins in the blood instead of looking at individual protein levels. With new testing equipment doctors can look at thousands of proteins at one time. It’s unlikely that such a test would be used in a doctor’s office, but it may help researchers narrow down which protein levels are important in a certain type of cancer. This information could then be used to develop a blood test that might look only at these important proteins. Then, blood or a tissue sample could be checked for the protein pattern as a way to find cancer.

These new testing methods are still in the early stages of development. Very few are in routine use at this time.

Last Medical Review: 10/30/2013
Last Revised: 10/30/2013