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How Is Biomarker Testing Used in Cancer Treatment?

October 27, 2022

Testing positive for cancer is only one aspect of a cancer diagnosis. Doctors use different scans and tests to gain as much information as possible about every cancer they treat. Like people, no two cancers are 100 percent alike. Therefore, the same treatment that worked for someone else may not work for you. The treatment most likely to work is one that has been created and customized just for you and your specific subtype of cancer. Biomarker testing is used to help determine this, and it’s one of the tests in developing individual cancer treatment plans.

What Are Biomarkers In Cancer?

Many people first diagnosed with cancer hear the term “biomarkers” but have no idea what they are. So, what are cancer biomarkers, and why are they important?

Cancer biomarkers are distinguishing characteristics of cancer cells that differentiate them from normal cells. They’re measured in your blood, body fluid, or tissue.

Cancer biomarkers may include:

  • Proteins
  • Genes
  • Gene mutations
  • Extra copies of genes
  • Missing genes
  • Other molecules

Biomarkers are often given a three- or four-letter abbreviation, such as EGFR in lung cancer and HER2 in breast cancer. In addition to helping your oncologist identify the specific subtype of cancer you have and how aggressively it will grow, biomarker testing is most notably helpful in determining the treatments and therapies your cancer is most likely to respond to.

What Cancers Have Biomarkers?

Only some cancers are inherited, while many are not. In most cases, those diagnosed with cancer don’t have an identifiable “cancer gene.” However, from proteins to genes, biomarkers exist in all cancers in one form or another.

How are Biomarkers Used to Select Cancer Treatment?

Biomarker testing can help you and your oncologist select the best cancer treatment for you and your subspecies of cancer. Some cancer treatments, such as immunotherapies or targeted therapies, may only help people with cancers containing specific biomarkers.

For example, if specific genetic changes have occurred in the EGFR gene, EGFR inhibitors can be given to target those changes and help treat cancer. In this case, testing for biomarkers could help someone determine if an EGFR gene change exists in their cancer and whether or not to proceed with EGFR inhibitor treatment. This is just one example of the dozens of different biomarkers oncologists use to provide complete diagnoses and treatment suggestions.

What Is Biomarker Testing?

Testing for biomarkers involves looking for proteins, genes, and other molecules known as biomarkers that can provide helpful information about a person’s cancer. Unique biomarker patterns exist for each cancer case; some affect how specific treatments work, allowing you and your oncologist to better select the proper cancer treatment and course of action for you.

Biomarker cancer testing may also be called:

There are several valuable biomarkers, but despite clinical guidelines recommending their use, far too many cancer patients don’t receive a comprehensive biomarker test.

How is Biomarker Testing Done?

Testing for biomarkers is done by taking a blood sample or a small amount of tissue, known as a biopsy, from a patient’s tumor. The sample is then sent to a lab where it undergoes testing to identify critical information regarding the patient’s specific cancer and tumor composition. Results from the testing are used to determine and develop the patient’s treatment path. Unlike a single-gene test, a comprehensive biomarker test screens for all known biomarkers for a specific cancer type.

Are There Different Types of Biomarker Tests?

When testing for biomarkers, several different types of tests can be used to help select the best possible cancer treatment. Most biomarker tests are designed to identify genetic markers, but others also look for proteins or other molecules.

Some tests look for a single biomarker, while others, called panel tests, check for several biomarkers. Some tests are for certain types of cancer, such as melanoma, while others look for biomarkers in many different types of cancer. Some look at the specific number of mutations in your cancer, while others, like whole-exome sequencing and whole-genome sequencing, look at all the genes and DNA in your cancer.

What Is Genomic Testing for Cancer?

Genomic testing predicts how cancer will grow and determines which treatments may work best against it. Sometimes referred to as “DNA Sequencing,” genomic testing looks at every gene rather than targeting a specific one. Genomic testing examines your genome more widely than other biomarker tests.

In other words, there’s no end-all-be-all when testing for biomarkers. Your oncologist may request one or several tests to gain as much information as possible about your cancer and recommend the best treatment path.

At Verdi Oncology, we’re invested in our mission of protecting community-based oncology. We provide technological, clinical, financial, and operational support to help maximize practice efficiency and improve cancer treatment for patients and their families.