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Indian J Med Paediatr Oncol. 2009 Jan;30(1):1-8. doi: 10.4103/0971-5851.56328.

Tumor markers in clinical practice: General principles and guidelines.

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Department of Surgical Oncology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences & Research Centre, Ernakulam - 682026, Kerala, India.


Tumor markers are assuming a growing role in all aspects of cancer care, starting from screening to follow-up after treatment, and their judicious application in clinical practice needs a thorough understanding of the basics of pathophysiology, techniques of identification or testing, reasons for out-of-range levels of tumor markers, as well as the knowledge of evidence of their role in any given malignancy. These are, at the most, just an adjunct to diagnosis, and establishing a diagnosis on the basis of tumor markers alone (especially a single result) is fraught with associated pitfalls because of the problem of nonspecificity. In reality an ideal tumor marker does not exist. Detection can be done either in tissue or in body fluids like ascitic or pleural fluid or serum. Clinical uses can be broadly classified into 4 groups: screening and early detection, diagnostic confirmation, prognosis and prediction of therapeutic response and monitoring disease and recurrence. In addition to variable sensitivity and specificity, the prevalence of a particular malignancy may be a major determinant in the application of a particular test as a screening tool. Serum levels, in certain situations, can be used in staging, prognostication or prediction of response to therapy. Monitoring disease is, perhaps, the most common clinical use of serum tumor markers. Rising trend in serum levels may detect recurrence of disease well before any clinical or radiological evidence of disease is apparent ("biochemical recurrence"). Sampling should ideally be repeated after 5-6 half-lives of the marker in question (or the marker with the longest half-life if multiple markers are being considered); but if found elevated, the next sampling after 2-4 weeks, for additional evidence, may be justified.


Tumor markers; early diagnosis; malignancy; serum tumor markers

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