Tumor marker

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A tumor marker is a substance found in the blood, urine, or body tissues that can be elevated in cancer, among other tissue types. There are many different tumor markers, each indicative of a particular disease process, and they are used in oncology to help detect the presence of cancer. An elevated level of a tumor marker can indicate cancer; however, there can also be other causes of the elevation.


Tumor markers can be produced directly by the tumor or by non-tumor cells as a response to the presence of a tumor.

Koepke outlines a hierarchy of clinical laboratory tests, from least to most informative. As used in oncology, they are as follows:

  • Screening for common cancers on a population basis
Example: elevated prostate specific antigen suggests prostate cancer.
  • Monitoring of cancer survivors after treatment
Example: elevated AFP in a child previously treated for teratoma suggests relapse with endodermal sinus tumor.
  • Diagnosis of specific tumor types, particularly in certain brain tumors and other instances where biopsy is not feasible.

The term tumor antigen is sometimes interchangeably used for tumor marker.


Tumor markers can be classified in two groups: Cancer-specific markers and tissue-specific markers.

Cancer-specific markers

Cancer-specific markers are related to the presence of certain cancerous tissue. Because there is a large overlap between the many different tumor tissue types and...
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