Health awareness

It’s cancer. Biomarker testing may help guide your personal care plan

Oncologist and scientific AVP Dr. Alexandra Snyder Charen explains why biomarkers are critical to help us reveal what’s driving the cancer and how we approach it

May 19, 2021

Share this article

article hero thumbnail

Biomarkers are changing the way we approach cancer. They provide important genetic and tumor information that can lead to a more targeted – or personalized – cancer care plan. Biomarker testing after a cancer diagnosis is an important next step.

“Something I’ve found with my patients is that they want to know they’re getting the best treatment specifically for them – not just for a person with their diagnosis. And, biomarkers help do that. In many cases, they help us understand the particular tumor in an individual so that we can better determine how to care for that person in a way that’s most likely to be successful for them,” says Dr. Alexandra (Alex) Snyder Charen, oncologist and scientific AVP, clinical research, oncology early development, who continues to see patients on a voluntary basis.

What are biomarkers?

Biomarkers are biological molecules found in blood or tissues that can serve as signs to help better understand a condition or disease.  In cancer, these biomarkers help us understand what’s driving the cancer and how we approach it.

Testing for oncology biomarkers after a cancer diagnosis may involve taking a blood test or often involves taking a little piece of the tumor – usually from the biopsy used to make the cancer diagnosis – and testing the proteins on the tumor and/or the genes in the tumor to look for known biomarkers.

“Biomarkers help characterize a given cancer in more detail. You can kind of think about the biomarker as a signal of the Achilles heel – the weakness – of the cancer,” says Alex. “And these ‘predictive biomarkers’ tell us how likely it is that an individual will respond to a specific treatment.”

According to Alex, this represents an evolution from when we thought “breast cancer” was simply “breast cancer” or “lung cancer” was simply “lung cancer.”

Researcher working in a lab

Alex explains, “Over the last 20 to 25 years, we’ve really come to understand that ‘cancer’ incorporates a very diverse set of diseases. The field of breast cancer was arguably the first to realize that there are many types of breast cancer, and that certain tests could help figure out how aggressive the disease was and how likely it was to recur if it were localized. Ultimately, those tests developed alongside treatments into ways to help determine a more personalized approach.”

She continues, “now we’re thinking about more types of cancers like lung, stomach or colon, among others – and how they can be distinct depending on what biomarkers they have.”

Some biomarkers are specific to certain tumor types

“Within each of the organ-specific cancers – for example, breast or lung – there are usually biomarkers that help tell us what kind of breast cancer or lung cancer it is,” says Alex.

“With that biomarker information, we may be able to tailor an approach for the patient sitting in front of me.”

Interestingly, some biomarkers can be found in different tumor types, regardless of where the tumor first developed; they’re sometimes called “pan-tumor” or “tumor-agnostic.” Approaching cancer care based on the cancer’s genetic and molecular features without regard to the cancer type or where the cancer started in the body is a fundamental shift in the way we’re thinking about cancer.  

“While pan-tumor biomarkers are not as common, they remain an important focus of our research because they represent a significant number of cancer cases – and lives,” says Alex.

Zeroing in on the Achilles heels of cancers

Our company has been at the forefront of research to advance the understanding of biomarkers for cancer.

“We continue to delve into the biology of all the different types of tumors we see to figure out their Achilles heels, how to measure them, and how to design drugs that target those weaknesses,” explains Alex.  “And that’s what we want for every patient. We want a biomarker that can direct us to a medicine or combination of medicines that may help every patient with cancer.”

But for these medicines to be an option, biomarker testing is key, and that means discussing it with your doctor.

Alex says the bottom line is — if you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, ask your doctor some important questions:

Is there a way in which biomarker testing could help guide my treatment?

Is there any chance there’s an inherited risk for my cancer that we should test for and, if so, should we do genetic testing?

“I think there’s definitely reason to be hopeful because biomarker-guided care is helping people,” says Alex. “It’s clear that that’s the case. It’s just that we need to do more biomarker testing today and keep studying the biomarkers of tomorrow so we can develop truly personalized plans to care for every patient.”