Its all in the name – Biomarkers

We are sure you will all appreciate the importance of names. Names provide you, your favourite team, favourite biscuit or favourite game with an identity. A name also leaves a legacy behind it. Get the name right and people will never forget your impact. You will be working as a teams through the experiments and lessons during Leading the Way.

Pre-event challenge: we would like you to meet your team mates and discuss your team name.

The only rule: We ask when considering your team name that you stay within the theme of human health – remember during Leading the Way we are exploring the use of biomarkers in detection and the importance of knowing their shape.

Your team name needs to be submitted to your Science teacher by 23rd May. The Leading the Way team will then be awarding a prize to the best name when we meet you between on 3rd June if your are at Excelsior and 9th of June if you attend Monkseaton Middle School.

The Diagnosis Dilemma – How quick do I know?

One of the greatest challenges currently facing doctors, is how to best diagnose a patient’s condition, quickly and efficiently.

Doctors are very busy people and often a visit to your GP will be managed on a timetable of either 5 or 10 minute meetings. So in reality they do not have much time available to be directly involved in the tests needed. This is a driving force in current research into diagnosis – How can we do this rapidly and accurately? Here time is key as some of these tests would have a huge health benefit if the results were immediate. Money is also important. A diagnostic test needs to be simple and cheap. Efficient and rapid diagnosis can have long term effects on our economy by reducing unnecessary treatment costs.

When we discuss diagnosis, scientists now exploit the term “Biomarkers” to generally describe the subject of a specific test.

Wikipedia defines a biomarker as anything that can be used as an indicator of a particular disease state or some other physiological state of an organism. We discuss them in more detail here.

Biomarkers have been used in medicine for decades but have not always been described using such terminology. Some examples of well defined biomarkers include determining your glucose levels if you are diabetic or in the diagnosis of Cancer. What each of these tests look for are SPECIFIC BIOMARKERS associated with the reason you are being screened. Glucose is a sugar found in your blood and different types of cancers can be told apart.

Leading the Way Focus: During our time with you we will be considering the importance of knowing the physical shape of biomarkers and how this can help us detect them.

Discussion points: How quick would you want a result? Would you always want an immediate response? are you prepared to wait? Can you think of any other examples of BIOMARKERS?


What are Biomarkers?

Biomarkers are biological characteristics which can be used to detect diseases. Researchers are interested in finding biomarkers because they can be used to help diagnose and treat patients.

Biomarkers are usually proteins found in cells or bodily fluids like blood or urine. By measuring the levels of these proteins doctors can assess how severe a disease is and detect improvements after treatment.

Example: HER-2 and breast cancer diagnosis and treatment

Detecting a biomarker. HER-2 proteins are stained brown, the small blue circles are cell nuclei. (source)

In some breast cancers the tumour cells have abnormally high levels of a protein called HER-2. HER-2 is a protein found on the cell surface which receives chemical signals to make the cell grow and divide. If cells have too much HER-2 the cells grow out of control, leading to cancer and tumour formation.

Detection: HER-2 positive cells are easily detected in biopsy material using a stain which shows high levels of HER-2 in dark brown. As these cells grow very quickly doctors know that HER-2 positive tumours need rapid treatment.

Treatment: Researchers designed a drug (Herceptin) which detects cancer cells with abnormally high levels of HER-2. Herceptin is an antibody which specifically binds to HER-2 proteins and tells the immune system that the cell needs to be destroyed.  Therefore the identification of HER-2 as a biomarker for a type of breast cancer has resulted in quicker and more effective treatment for HER-2 positive breast cancer patients.

Video of Herceptin in action

More about biomarkers

Discussion Points: When would detecting biomarkers be useful? Do we need a biomarker for every health issue? Why are antibodies often used to detect protein biomarkers? Biomarkers aren’t always proteins. What else could be a biomarker? How could they be measured?