Biomarkers for Health

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Trend Five: Top 12 Areas for Innovation through 2025.

The DC-based research and consulting firm Social Technologies has released a series of 12 briefs that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025.

The fifth innovation brief in the series, "Biomarkers for Health," was written by futurist Simeon Spearman, who explains that new advances in genomics and biotechnology are unveiling new biomarkers at the molecular level that will assist in the early discovery and more effective treatments for a wide variety of diseases.

"Biomarkers are indicators of particular health or disease states within an organism," Spearman explains, noting they have typically been limited to indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and other vital signs.

But in recent years consumers have had growing access to an increasing number of products that allow them to track traditional biomarkers -- and identification of new molecular biomarkers will eventually enable doctors to use regular screenings to test patients for the antibodies, proteins, DNA fragments and others that signal various chronic illnesses.

Current technologies for biomarker monitoring focus on physical biomarkers like blood pressure and heart rate, but limited diagnostic use of molecular biomarkers for disease screening have emerged.

  •     Consumer level biosensors. Already, biosensors that the average consumer can use to monitor basic vital signs have been introduced into personal devices and apparel. Nike and Apple are currently introducing the concept to consumers with their Nike + iPod line, which monitors running distance, time and calories burned. Mobile phone manufacturers across the globe have started producing phones capable of tracking heart rate and blood pressure. And the European Union is engaged in a project to create smart clothing for health monitoring.
  •     Home diagnostics. As tests that consumers can use at home become more sophisticated and leverage growing understanding of biomarkers, they may provide even more advanced warning of pending medical conditions, Spearman believes. "Already, female patients in The Netherlands are participating in trials of a home pap smear test, which doctors hope will increase patient willingness to undergo the test."
  •     PSA screening. Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is one of the most widely known molecular biomarkers currently in use for cancer screening. In this case, however, the test isn't 100 percent accurate. To reduce error, it is conducted along with other diagnostic procedures -- so for this test to be used at home would require additional tweaking.

Biomarkers are useful in identifying and diagnosing diseases, but challenges remain over their detection, clinical validation and ease of use. Hurdles that need to be overcome include:

  •     Biomarker validation. Before a molecular biomarker can be used for medical diagnoses in patients, the marker must be validated in human clinical trials. Many proteins and other substances can be presented as viable candidate biomarkers, but not until amounts of the substance can be accurately measured and correlated to the presence or absence of a medical condition considered useful in helping patients. "Unfortunately, many biomarkers are difficult to detect due to their low concentrations in human blood and tissue," Spearman points out. "Therefore, biomarker validation tools must be ultra-sensitive to the presence of biomarkers."
  •     Quality of information. Another challenge facing diagnostic biomarkers is in the quality of the information that can be derived using current technology. "For those seeking to use biomarkers to prevent future health problems, an understanding of the implications of the change in a vital sign is important in order to keep consumers from either being worried all the time or from becoming too complacent," Spearman says, adding that challenges remain in reducing the number of false positives or false negatives produced through current techniques.
  •     Ease of use. The success of home diagnostics depends on them being noninvasive, private, convenient and have for consumers to administer the tests properly. And as more sophisticated home diagnostics become available based on newly discovered biomarkers, adherence to testing instructions will need to be communicated effectively.

The popularity of home monitors for heart rate and blood pressure have provided valuable clues into patient lifestyles and informed decision-making among healthcare professionals. Going forward, the technologies that will have the highest impact will be those that enable earlier detection of potential health risks, customization of treatments and better long-term monitoring of health conditions. Consider the following:

  •     Home monitors. Vital sign biosensors and molecular-biomarker tests will provide more information about bodily functions that many consumers, and even doctors, will be capable of analyzing without the use of sophisticated software. Harvard researchers are already developing nanostructure diagnostic devices that will enable consumers to test for cancer, influenza and sexually transmitted diseases.
  •     Lab on a chip. Rapid health screening is expected to be possible and widely adopted in the next 15 years. This will be fueled by lab-on-a-chip technology -- micro engineered devices that perform analyses of blood and other fluids on small computer chips, similar to those currently carried out in labs.
  •     Biomarkers for aging. These biomarkers could be used to recognize the onset of aging and determine the biological, not chronological, age of patients' overall body and organs. Currently, decreased levels of DHEA are associated with the slowing of various bodily functions, and researchers hope to find other biomarkers for aging so they can create therapies to counter it.

Learn more
To learn more about the trends and forecasts in this report and what they mean for your organization, set up an interview with Simeon Spearman. Arrange it by sending an email to Hope Gibbs, leader of corporate communications, at

Simeon Spearman ) Futurist
Simeon Spearman is a futurist and contributing writer for S)T's Technology Foresight and Global Lifestyles multiclient projects. He also contributes to custom client projects, and tracks emerging trends, values and segments for the Futures Observatory, Social Technologies' trend-feed program. Simeon's professional interests include digital lifestyles, contemporary Japanese culture, and development in emerging markets. He is currently pursuing his MS in studies of the future at the University of Houston, and graduated with a BS in international affairs and modern languages from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He spent a year abroad in 2004-2005 as an exchange student at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan.

About ) Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit , the blog and the newsletter

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