What is a biomarker?

BioStrand (a subsidiary of IPA)
4 min readFeb 19, 2023


A biomarker, or biological marker, broadly refers to a range of objectively, accurately, and reproducibly measurable medical signs . These signs indicate the medical state of a patient in terms of the presence/progress, or the effect of treatment on a particular disease. A simple example of a biomarker is blood pressure, the most relied upon medical sign for the diagnosis and treatment of hypertension in clinical practice.

In terms of a more formal definition, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) biomarkers as any biological molecule found in body fluids or tissues that can be used to follow body processes and diseases in humans and animals. The Biomarkers, EndpointS, and other Tools (BEST) glossary from the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health (FDA-NIH) Biomarker Working Group them as a characteristic that is measured as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or biological responses to an exposure or intervention, including therapeutic interventions.

In recent years, biomarker research has helped open new perspectives on the molecular dynamics of complex diseases. As a result, biomarkers are now used widely in healthcare settings as well as in different phases across the drug discovery and development pipeline.

The use of biomarkers during drug development has increased significantly over the years. According to one , well over half of all FDA/EMA approvals between 2015 and 2019 were supported by biomarker data during at least one of the development stages. In 2020. more than 33,000 clinical trials, including around 4000 Phase 3 and 4 trials, registered with the ClinicalTrials.gov database involved biomarkers.

The evolution toward multi-component biomarkers

The BEST glossary defines seven categories of biomarkers with the possibility for a biomarker to have characteristics associated with different categories.

Diagnostic biomarkers are used to detect or confirm a disease or condition of interest in individuals or to identify individuals with a subtype of the disease. Biomarkers that enable the diagnosis of disease subtypes can often play a critical role as prognostic and predictive biomarkers.

As the scene of biomarkers evolves, new categories are being added to these fundamental seven types.

Companion Diagnostics (CDx) is the development of predictive biomarkers in conjunction with novel therapeutics. The FDA’s concurrent approval of trastuzumab and the HER2 immunohistochemical (IHC) assay through a coordinated procedure launched this new drug-diagnostic co-development model . Companion diagnostics subdivide patients based on molecular biomarkers, which can then be used to drive decision-making on patient selection for drug trials and identification of clinically effective drugs for personalised treatments.

Another new category of note is digital biomarkers, as ‘ characteristics, collected from digital health technologies, that are measured as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or responses to an exposure or intervention, including therapeutic interventions. Digital biomarkers open up new possibilities for the remote and continuous assessment of patients and preclinical subjects, even in non-clinical settings through clinical trials or disease progression .

However, as biomarker research evolves, the use of multi-component biomarkers continues to expand. Earlier this year, the FDA convened a Public Meeting to identify concepts and terminology for further development and use of multi-component biomarkers. As per the agency, multi-component or multi-variate biomarkers could comprise multiple components of the same type or of different types based on independent measurements. These measurements could be used independently and/or in combination as a characteristic that indicates normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or responses to an exposure or intervention, including therapeutic interventions and environmental exposures.

At the same time, there is also ongoing research aimed at developing a multi-dimensional, evidence-based approach to biomarker-drug classification . The argument is that the usefulness of a biomarker for drug development has to be assessed across two dimensions: one, to determine the biological plausibility of a biomarker acting directly on the drug target and two, to establish its precision in predicting the clinical outcome in drug efficacy or safety.

Biomarkers in drug development

Research shows that the use of biomarkers for patient stratification improves the probability of success (POS) of clinical trials across all phases, most significantly in Phases 1 and 2. The overall POS of trials that used biomarkers was almost double that of non-biomarker trials.

However, clinical trials are just one phase in the development cycle. Even within drug development pipelines that incorporate biomarkers, less than 10% use them across all stages of development. And oncology still leads other therapeutic areas in the effective adoption of biomarkers. Moreover, the resource intensity of biomarker research means most studies are to specific drug development programmes.

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Originally published at https://blog.biostrand.ai.



BioStrand (a subsidiary of IPA)

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