The Fundamental Difficulty With Evaluating the Accuracy of Biomarkers for Guiding Treatment

Holly Janes, Margaret S. Pepe, Lisa M. McShane, Daniel J. Sargent, Patrick J. Heagerty

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Developing biomarkers that can predict whether patients are likely to benefit from an intervention is a pressing objective in many areas of medicine. Recent guidance documents have recommended that the accuracy of predictive biomarkers, ie, sensitivity, specificity, and positive and negative predictive values, should be assessed. We clarify the meanings of these entities for predictive markers and demonstrate that generally they cannot be estimated from data without making strong untestable assumptions. Language suggesting that predictive biomarkers can identify patients who benefit from an intervention is also widespread. We show that in general one cannot estimate the chance that a patient will benefit from treatment. We recommend instead that predictive biomarkers be evaluated with respect to their ability to predict clinical outcomes among patients treated and among patients receiving standard of care, and the population impact of treatment rules based on those predictions. Ideally these entities are estimated from a randomized trial comparing the experimental intervention with standard of care.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of the National Cancer Institute
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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