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Tumour Biol. 2012 Apr;33(2):463-74. doi: 10.1007/s13277-011-0275-1. Epub 2011 Dec 9.

Utility of serum tumor markers as an aid in the differential diagnosis of patients with clinical suspicion of cancer and in patients with cancer of unknown primary site.

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Laboratory of Clinical Biochemistry (Unit for Cancer Research), Hospital Clinic, Institut d'Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi i Sunyer (IDIBAPS), University of Barcelona, Villarroel 170, Barcelona, 08036, Spain.


Cancer may be diagnosed in advanced stages, when the patient has already developed metastasis, with symptoms that can be also observed in benign diseases. The objective of this study was to evaluate tumor marker sensitivity and specificity in the differential diagnosis of patients with suspected signs of cancer. We studied 2.711 consecutive patients admitted to the Internal Medicine Department of our hospital with suspected cancer; 1.240 patients had non-malignant processes and 1.471 had malignant disease. Determinations were considered positive for suspected malignancy when serum levels were carcinoembryonic antigen >15 ng/ml (>20 in patients with renal failure or liver disease), alpha fetoprotein >40 ng/ml (>80 ng/ml in patients with liver diseases), carbohydrate antigen (CA) 19.9 > 200 U/ml (>500 U/ml in patients with liver diseases or gamma glutamyl transpeptidase (GGT) <150 UI/L or effusions; >1.000 U/ml in patients with jaundice or GGT > 150 UI/L), neuron-specific enolase >45 ng/ml (renal failure >50 ng/ml; samples with hemolysis were excluded), prostate-specific antigen > 30 ng/ml (excluding acute prostatitis), tumor-associated glycoprotein-72 >80 U/ml, cytokeratin 19 fragment 21-1 > 7.5 ng/ml (>19 ng/ml in patients with renal failure; >11 ng/ml in patients with liver cirrhosis or jaundice), >3.5 ng/ml for squamous cell carcinoma (excluding patients with renal failure or skin disorders), CA 15.3 >100 U/ml, and CA 125 >350 U/ml (>600 U/ml in patients with pleural effusion and >900 U/ml in those with ascites). There was a specificity of 97.6% in patients without malignancy, 67.4% of sensitivity in patients with malignancy, and 75.4% of sensitivity in the 1,280 patients with epithelial tumors (53.7% in patients with locally advanced tumors and 79.4% in patients with metastases). Sensitivity was 81.4% in patients with cancer of unknown primary site. Tumor markers were useful in the differential diagnosis between epithelial and non-epithelial tumors, brain masses (metastases vs. primary tumors), and between benign or malignant origin of different clinical situations such as wasting syndrome, effusions, liver or bone lesions, and effusions with a positive predictive value higher than 95%. Tumor markers are useful as an aid in the evaluation of the risk of cancer of these patients with suspected cancer and may be useful to reduce the hospitalization time, morbidity, and the number of diagnostic tests required for diagnosis.

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