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Logo of nihpaAbout Author manuscriptsSubmit a manuscriptHHS Public Access; Author Manuscript; Accepted for publication in peer reviewed journal;
Circulation. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2012 March 15.
Published in final edited form as:
PMCID: PMC3138723

Evaluating the Clinical Utility of a Biomarker

A Review of Methods for Estimating Health Impact
Mark J. Pletcher, MD, MPH* and Michael Pignone, MD, MPH


Biomarkers, broadly defined, are markers of a biological process or state1. Biomarkers are often used in research studies, but they may also be useful for clinicians and patients if they provide information about current status or future risk of disease. It is not always clear, however, when a novel biomarker provides enough useful information to justify measuring it in the context of clinical care.

Evaluating the clinical utility of a novel biomarker requires a phased approach2. Early-phase studies must prove that the biomarker is associated statistically with the clinical state of interest and adds information about presence or risk of disease above and beyond established markers. Mid-phase studies describe how often this incremental information might alter physician prescribing decisions. Early- and mid-phase studies are useful because they help investigators compare biomarker performance in terms that are “generic”, in the sense that they do not depend on the specifics of the disease state being studied. These generic biomarker performance measures have been reviewed previously2-16 and are described in Table 1 along with relevant published examples17-32.

Table 1
Generic Measures of Biomarker Performance

Measuring biomarker performance in generic terms, however, is not sufficient for demonstrating clinical utility6. The decision to use a biomarker in clinical practice should be based on an expectation that it will have a positive net health impact; and measuring health impact, by definition, requires use of measurements that consider the specific disease state being studied and its consequences. The goal of this review is to describe the methods by which evidence about the health impact of measuring a biomarker may be generated (late-phase evidence2) using examples relevant to cardiovascular disease, and with a focus on the use of randomized clinical trials and modeling for estimating health impact.


Mechanisms by which biomarker measurement can impact health

There are three fundamental mechanisms by which measuring a biomarker in the context of clinical care may improve health (Figure 1): biomarker measurements may 1) help the patient understand his or her disease or risk of disease and thereby directly improve quality of life and/or mental health; 2) motivate the patient to make behavioral changes that improve health, such as eating a healthier diet, exercising more, or improving adherence to beneficial treatments prescribed by a clinician; or 3) help a clinician make a better clinical decision (e.g., about use of some treatment) that leads to improved health of the patient. Of these mechanisms, 1 and 2 are highly dependent on characteristics of the individual, and the improved quality of life or mental health attained via mechanism 1 may be fleeting and difficult to measure. Mechanism 3 is the most commonly cited reason for measuring a biomarker, and the one most under clinician control. Also, note that biomarker measurements can lead to adverse health outcomes through these same mechanisms (e.g., a depressed mood from bad news, worsening health-related behaviors from good news, or a worse clinical decision triggered by erroneous or misinterpreted biomarker results). Before ordering a biomarker measurement for a patient, the clinician should have a clear expectation that improved health, on average, will result from the biomarker measurement through one or more of these mechanisms.

Figure 1
Three mechanisms by which biomarker measurement may improve health outcomes

Measuring health impact of a biomarker strategy

Deriving a credible and reproducible measurement of health impact requires embedding biomarker measurement into a clinical strategy that employs one or more of the mechanisms above. This “biomarker strategy” can then be compared with alternate strategies in which the biomarker is not measured. The comparison should be made in terms of impact on health outcomes (Table 2). For example, a strategy that uses B-type natriuretic protein (BNP) results to adjust diuretic intensity in congestive heart failure (CHF) outpatients might be evaluated based on measurements of dyspnea and quality of life, CHF hospitalizations and/or mortality rate34.

Table 2
Measures of Health Impact

It is sometimes necessary to evaluate and compare scenarios that result in different types of health outcomes, such as when making policy decisions about how to allocate resources in a health system or when estimating the net health effects of a treatment with both beneficial and adverse effects (e.g., coumadin prevents strokes but causes gastrointestinal bleeding). For this purpose, health-related measurements specific to different conditions may be converted into a common metric such as quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs). This measure of health impact takes into account both quantity and quality of life by integrating years of life with “utility” (general quality of life on a 0-100% scale) in each year. QALYs can be estimated in any clinical scenario, and this allows direct comparisons of health impact across different health conditions from a utilitarian perspective35, 36.


Rationale and fundamental design of biomarker strategy trials

A well-designed randomized controlled trial is the best study design for directly measuring the health impact of a biomarker strategy. Observational studies, in which the decision to measure the biomarker is not under the control of the study investigator, can also provide useful information about health outcomes. However, participants for the whom the test is recommended and who accept and adhere to this recommendation are often systematically different than those who do not. As such, observational comparisons of health impact between such participants are inherently subject to “confounding”, and isolating the putative effects of the intervention from the effects of other factors can be very difficult. Special study designs (e.g., within-person/population time-series37) and advanced analytic methods (e.g., instrumental variable analysis38, propensity scores, inverse probability weighting, and marginal structural models39) for addressing these problems are available; but in practice, we are usually left with some uncertainty about the degree to which results from an observational analysis may be subject to bias. In contrast, random assignment of the biomarker strategy in a randomized controlled trial assures comparability of groups (on average), and the true unconfounded effect of the strategy can be estimated by a simple between-groups comparison of health outcomes.

In order to estimate the effectiveness of measuring a biomarker, the trial must be designed such that some participants are randomized to a strategy in which a biomarker is measured and provided to the clinician and/or participant and others are randomized to a strategy in which it is not (Figure 2). Clinical trial designs involving biomarkers that do not use this approach cannot directly estimate health impact. The JUPITER trial, for example, featured measurement of C-reactive protein (CRP) in all trial participants, with a high CRP level (>2.0 mg/L) required for entry into the trial40; participants were then randomized to rosuvastatin versus placebo, and clinical event rates (MI, stroke and all-cause mortality) were lower in the rosuvastatin arm. JUPITER, therefore, provided evidence of the impact of statin therapy in persons with high CRP, but it did not provide an estimate of the impact of measuring CRP41.

Figure 2
Fundamental design for a randomized trial to evaluate biomarker utility

Designing the intervention and control strategies

The intervention strategy for a trial should specify not only how and when the biomarker will be measured, but the way in which the measurement will be used. For example, knowing the coronary calcium score might improve the efficacy of a CHD risk factor counseling intervention (Figure 1, mechanisms 1 and 2). One trial testing this hypothesis found that knowledge of the coronary calcium score (vs. no such knowledge) during risk factor counseling did not result in a difference in participant mental health or CHD risk factor control42.

If improved clinical decision-making is the goal (Figure 1, mechanism 3), then one must identify clinical decisions that might plausibly change with measurement of the biomarker. Smoking cessation counseling (almost always indicated in smokers) and revascularization (almost never indicated in asymptomatic patients) are two examples of decisions that probably should not change based on measurement of a biomarker of CHD risk such as the coronary calcium score. On the other hand, pharmacological primary prevention strategies such as aspirin and statins have potential for adverse effects and costs, and guidelines currently recommend their use only when cardiovascular risk is above some threshold43, 44. This leaves room for improvement in decision-making with measurement of a biomarker like coronary calcium that can improve risk prediction beyond what may be possible with standard risk factors alone (i.e., Framingham risk score). Persons with a higher coronary calcium score might benefit more from aspirin and/or statin use, whereas these medications might be more likely to cause net harm than net benefit in persons with a low or zero score.

Once the key clinical decisions are identified, algorithms for using the biomarker to make those clinical decisions should be specified as clearly as possible in both intervention and control groups. Adherence to the specifics of the biomarker strategy will never be perfect, and some leeway for individualizing clinical decisions is often required to allow for clinical judgment and to enhance overall adherence with the intervention. However, clearly specifying the clinical strategy will enhance interpretability of the study results and facilitate effective translation into practice after the study is published. Note that an important strength of randomized controlled trials is the ability to measure the degree to which clinicians do or do not adhere to the specifics of a biomarker strategy, and to take into account non-adherence when estimating health impact (assuming the results are analyzed according to the “intention-to-treat” principle45).

Defining the study sample and planning for subgroup analyses

Measurement of a biomarker may reclassify patients into higher or lower risk groups with different treatment indications; but the consequences of upwards and downwards reclassification may be quite different. This expected heterogeneity of effect has important implications for how the study should be designed and analyzed.

Consider the example of a trial designed to estimate the health impact of measuring coronary calcium in persons at “intermediate risk” for coronary disease (e.g., 10-year CHD risk 6-19%30), who are more likely than persons at high or low risk to be “reclassified” across a treatment threshold once the coronary calcium score is taken into consideration46. Both intervention and control strategies could follow ATPIII guidelines for prescribing cholesterol-lowering medications43, but the control strategy would use the “pre-test” CHD risk (calculated based on the Framingham risk score without knowledge of coronary calcium) to guide treatment decisions, while the intervention strategy might use “post-test” 10-year CHD risk (using coronary calcium to refine the Framingham risk score).

Even in this relatively focused scenario, the study sample is a mixture of persons who would otherwise get statins (e.g., pre-test 10-year risk>10% and LDL>130 mg/dl, “Subgroup A”) and persons who would not (e.g., pre-test 10-year risk<20% and LDL<130 mg/dl, “Subgroup B”; other specific subgroups also possible). In Subgroup A, biomarker measurement can only lead to a change in treatment (and potential benefit) if reclassification is downwards and the participant no longer qualifies for statin use; in Subgroup B, only upwards reclassification leads to a change in treatment (statin initiation). We would expect the mechanism and size of any benefit from biomarker measurement to be very different in Subgroup A (avoidance of statin adverse effects) than in Subgroup B (benefits of statin-mediated CHD risk reduction). The overall result of the trial, therefore, will be a poor estimate of the effect within either subgroup, representing as it does a mix of results from the two subgroups weighted by subgroup prevalence within the sample.

Three potential remedies for this problem should be considered. First, the investigators could narrow the inclusion criteria such that only one potential mechanism is represented. In the example above, investigators might focus on persons with 2 or more risk factors, pre-test 10-year risk = 6-9%, and LDL = 130-159 mg/dl, who would not qualify for statin treatment per ATPIII guidelines unless the coronary calcium score increased post-test CHD risk over 10%. Second, the investigators could plan for subgroup analyses, powering the study appropriately so that effect sizes can be estimated with reasonable precision for each important subgroup; this essentially amounts to designing and conducting a series of parallel trials. Third, the investigators might note this limitation and proceed with a mixed sample; in this case, care should be taken to select a sample that is representative of the target population in terms of the prevalence of Subgroup A vs. Subgroup B, etc. In this case, the overall study result will represent a mix of different mechanisms in different subgroups, but at least it will be the right mix to get an average effect estimate for the population; this average effect may be useful for policymakers considering broad average impact of a policy even if it is not very useful for clinicians making individual patient decisions (i.e., the individual patient is in one subgroup and not spread across multiple subgroups, so the average effect would not apply).

Sample size considerations and the “unreclassified fraction”

Biomarker trials usually must be larger than treatment trials because the putative beneficial effects of changing treatments for persons who are reclassified to a higher or lower risk category is diluted by the expected null effect in persons who are not reclassified (the “unreclassified fraction”). This point may be illustrated by extending the example detailed above. If we focus on Subgroup B in our coronary calcium measurement trial, we might guess that reclassification upwards would occur in 16% of persons30, leaving an unreclassified fraction of 84%. Assuming that the reclassified persons are the only ones who would benefit, and that 5-year risk in reclassified persons might be reduced by 40% with a high-potency statin (from 14.8%30 to 8.9%), the average risk in the intervention group would be reduced from 5.5% to 4.6% (assumes weighted averages of rates measured in MESA reclassification study30). Detecting this size of risk reduction with 80% power and 2-sided alpha=0.05 would require randomizing ~19,000 persons, half of whom would receive a coronary calcium scan, and following participants for an average of 5 years. In contrast, a 5-year trial of high potency statin therapy where everyone is treated would require a total sample size of only ~3000 to detect a risk reduction of 40% overall (5.5% to 3.3%).

Other challenges and limitations of randomized trials for evaluating utility of a biomarker

Because of the inherent expense and time required to conduct an adequately powered randomized trial of a biomarker measurement strategy, it is not feasible to conduct systematic trials of all reasonable test-and-treat strategies in all possible subgroups. Instead, the investigator must choose what seems like the “best” strategy in an important study population, and compare it to a “standard” strategy. What may be considered reasonable choices for things like biomarker measurement technology, treatment choice, reclassification thresholds, etc for both “best” and “standard” strategies at the time the study was designed may evolve and no longer seem reasonable several years later. The definition of “intermediate risk” of CHD, for example, seems to have evolved from 10-19%43 to 6-19%30 (10-year risk) in recent years, based on better data about the relative safety of risk-reducing treatments and reductions in the price of statins. As statin therapy becomes even less expensive, risk thresholds for treatment may decline even more substantially47; if this is the case, withholding statins in a particular subgroup might seem reasonable at the time the trial was designed, but no longer reasonable upon conclusion of the trial 5-10 years later. Thus, even if biomarker performance (Table 1) is stable over time, the clinical utility of measuring that biomarker may change dramatically.

Clinical trials cannot usually assess long-term effects (> 5-10 years) of a test or subsequent treatment because long-term trials are usually not feasible. Trial participants may lose motivation, long-term funding is difficult to secure, and trial results delayed very far into the future are at even higher risk of becoming irrelevant. This limitation makes estimation of the true long-term average health benefits of a biomarker measurement strategy difficult to capture. For example, a potential carcinogenic effect of radiation from a coronary artery calcium scan48 would not be reflected in a short-term randomized trial.

Masking treatment assignment in a biomarker utility trial is not usually possible because the mechanisms of biomarker benefit depend on the patient and/or clinician knowing the result of the biomarker test. In an unmasked trial, “co-interventions” applied differentially by study group are more likely to occur. If such co-interventions also have an effect on the outcome, these effects mix into and bias the overall estimate of the effects of the biomarker measurement. Outcome ascertainment may also be subject to bias; for example, a physician may refer a patient with chest pain more quickly for evaluation if they have not been screened for coronary calcium. Using an independent endpoint committee masked to treatment assignment to adjudicate study outcomes (e.g., by reviewing medical records) helps reduce outcome ascertainment bias, but may not completely eliminate this problem.

Because of these inherent challenges to conducting biomarker trials, not many have been published. Some prominent examples have tested use of BNP for CHF diagnosis49 or management34, 50, ultrasound screening for aortic aneurysm51, and pulmonary artery catheters for guiding hemodynamic management in intensive care patients52, 53.


Overview and general framework for modeling biomarker utility

Decision analysis modeling is used to simulate the downstream consequences of a clinical decision54 and can be used to estimate the health impact of biomarker strategies. Decision analysis is often used to simulate both health outcomes and economic outcomes. When the primary outcome of a decision analytic model is health impact, we might call this “comparative effectiveness modeling”; when the primary outcome is cost-effectiveness, this type of modeling is called cost-effectiveness modeling (or “cost-utility modeling” if the outcome is specifically formulated as cost/QALY), and can be used to describe the efficiency of biomarker strategies.

Decision analysis modeling is much less expensive and time consuming than conducting a clinical trial. Unlike randomized trials where one “best” strategy must be chosen a priori for testing, modeling studies can be used to compare systematically the effectiveness and efficiency of all reasonable strategies in all relevant subgroups. Modeling also allows the investigator to synthesize all available data on test characteristics, treatment efficacy and other relevant parameters including data on costs and long-term effects from testing and treatment, and identify crucial areas of uncertainty in existing data where more primary data collection is required.

Decision analysis modeling is designed to capture and weigh the tradeoffs inherent in any decision. The modeling approach described below and in Figure 3 provides a general framework for capturing the essential tradeoffs inherent in the decision of whether or not to measure a biomarker. We will focus here on use of biomarkers for making better clinical decisions (Figure 1, mechanism 3). In Online Supplemental Materials, we illustrate how a published decision analysis that evaluates cost-effectiveness of C-reactive protein as a screening tool for guiding statin therapy would fit into this framework (see Supplemental Figure 1, showing how Figure 3 can be adapted for this specific analysis), and provide a brief critique touching on the methodologic points discussed below.

Figure 3
Decision analytic framework for modeling clinical utility of a biomarker

Defining scenarios

Each scenario in a decision analysis should be defined narrowly, such that a single treatment strategy would be clinically reasonable in the absence of the biomarker result. Making the scenario narrow allows the resulting estimate to represent a relatively homogeneous effect that is easy to translate into practice. Because the marginal cost of modeling additional scenarios is relatively low (a key benefit of modeling compared with clinical studies), multiple scenarios can be considered; results can then be presented separately for each scenario, or integrated carefully across some population of interest if an average effect is desired for policymaking. For example, The CHD Policy Model, an established decision analytic model, automatically runs in parallel thousands of scenarios that, when combined, produce estimates that are representative of the US population age 35-8555.

Simulating the full range of possible strategies

Just as a receiver-operator characteristic (ROC) curve is always bounded by two extremes (sensitivity 100%/specificity 0% and sensitivity 0%/specificity 100%), it is useful to model the two logically extreme strategies when modeling biomarker utility: “Treat none” and “Treat all”. While one of these strategies may seem unrealistic in any given scenario, both strategies are clinically feasible to pursue without incurring the cost/harm of the biomarker test, “Test-and-Treat” strategies must compete against both extremes, and sometimes either extreme may be rationally preferred depending on society's willingness to pay. Furthermore, comparing these extremes to each other provides an estimate of treatment effectiveness and efficiency within the biomarker model, and a means of validating the model against prior analyses.

Dividing into “sub-scenarios” with differing levels of the biomarker

We assume that any given scenario (even if narrowly defined) consists of a mix of persons with differing levels of the biomarker of interest (“sub-scenarios”). Although only the Test-and-Treat strategies (S2 and S3 in Figure 3) will use the biomarker measurement, the sub-scenarios based on the biomarker distribution (along with potentially differing post-test risk estimates and treatment effects) should be modeled identically in all strategies. This ensures that all intervention simulations for that scenario (i.e, S1-S4) are equivalent in all aspects except for key tradeoffs related to testing and treatment (Figure 3). In different scenarios, however, biomarker distribution can be very different (e.g., coronary calcium is more common in older men than in younger women), and should be modeled as such in order to simulate realistic reclassification rates.

Figure 3 illustrates a 3-category approach to modeling the distribution of the biomarker based on critical test thresholds (T1 and T2). How many categories and what specific thresholds are modeled depends on the particulars of the test and clinical setting. For example, the investigator might use natural thresholds when the test result is naturally categorized (e.g., “low, high, or intermediate probability” scans for ventilation/perfusion scanning for pulmonary embolism17), thresholds used in prior studies (e.g., coronary calcium thresholds of 0, 100, and 300, as used in a key article22), or biomarker levels that would lead to a “post-test” risk, in the given scenario, that is over some established treatment threshold (e.g., post-test 10-year CHD risk > 20% for statin treatment43).

Modeling the post-test risk of events and effects of treatment

The only way a biomarker may be useful for clinical decision-making is if the expected benefits of some treatment are different for different levels of the biomarker, and this must be modeled explicitly for different sub-scenarios. The expected benefit of treatment will be larger for persons with biomarker results indicating a higher risk of disease (assuming relative risk reduction from the treatment is constant), and in persons where a biomarker result indicates higher treatment effectiveness (i.e, larger relative risk reduction). Modeling the expected benefits of treatment, therefore, requires 1) estimating post-test disease risk, and 2) applying treatment effectiveness (relative risk reduction) for each sub-scenario.

Modification of post-test risk comprises a key mechanism by which biomarker measurement may provide clinical utility; but calculation of post-test risk in different sub-scenarios is not straightforward. For example, note that a coronary calcium score of 50 may lead to a downward revision of risk in one patient (if it was lower than expected, as in the case of a 70 year-old man) and an upward revision of risk in another (if it was higher than expected, as in the case of a 55 year-old woman)56. Methods are available for estimating post-test risk while maintaining the average event rate by integrating evidence about biomarker distribution (“expectation”) with the relative risk estimates associated with different levels of a biomarker56. Alternately, direct estimates of risk from follow-up studies may be available for persons who are reclassified upwards or downwards by measurement of a biomarker29, 30. Either way, post-test risk estimates should be handled carefully and realistically, and should be based on data-driven biomarker performance estimates from studies that use “real-world” biomarker measurements that take into account measurement variability (from biological variability and measurement error).

Treatment effectiveness, in terms of relative risk reduction, is usually assumed to be constant across different persons, but this may not always be the case. The relative risk reduction for statin therapy, for example, may be larger for persons with a high C-reactive protein level than persons with a lower level32. Similarly, the risk of adverse effects from statins may vary depending on genetic factors23. Sub-scenario-specific treatment effectiveness is then applied to sub-scenario-specific disease risk to simulate outcome rates for each sub-scenario (Figure 3).

Modeling outcomes and estimating incremental differences between strategies

Clinical and economic outcomes are then modeled using these sub-scenario-specific risk estimates using standard decision analysis techniques. Simple event probabilities can be used to ramify all possible combinations of relevant events, each represented by a “terminal node”. For example, a single terminal node might represent the unlucky occurrence of both the outcome of interest and an adverse effect from treatment: “statin-induced myopathy + non-fatal MI”. For each terminal node, the overall probability of occurring is calculated, along with an overall estimate of “utility” (in QALYs or another measure of health impact, see Table 2) and costs (if relevant). For long-term scenarios, a standard approach is to use a Markov modeling process, which simulates cycles during which persons may transition between different clinical states (e.g., healthy, status/post myocardial infarction, dead, etc), with QALYs or other outcomes accruing during each cycle at different rates for patients in different states57. Either way, outcomes (utility +/- costs) are then summed across all possible terminal nodes or Markov cycles/states for each strategy, weighting by their probability of occurrence, to obtain an estimate of the average expected outcomes associated with any given strategy (Figure 3). For presentation purposes, different strategies are then compared by calculating the difference in average clinical utility between strategies (incremental effectiveness). For cost-effectiveness analysis, the incremental cost is also estimated, and the ratio of incremental cost to incremental effectiveness (incremental cost-effectiveness ratio, usually in $/QALY) is presented. Excellent, practical advice on designing and implementing decision analysis is available and directly applicable to biomarker modeling35, 54, 57-60.

Limitations of modeling and use of sensitivity analyses

The major limitation of modeling is that data are not always available to support the many assumption parameters required in the construction of the model. Typically, the modeler can find direct evidence to support estimates for some model parameters, indirect evidence for others, and must simply guess (using clinical judgment, etc) for the rest. Even when parameter estimates are based on good scientific evidence, they are associated with some uncertainty (from sampling error +/- bias).

Any modeling exercise, therefore, must be accompanied by a series of well-designed sensitivity analyses to see how this uncertainty could affect the results. In the “base case”, the modeler uses best guess estimates for all assumption parameters and produces a set of base case results; in sensitivity analyses, one or more of the assumption parameters are varied in order to evaluate how “sensitive” results are to variation in the parameter(s). By this method, the modeler can describe which parameter assumptions are important in estimating the effectiveness or cost-effectiveness of a strategy. For example, in a cost-effectiveness analysis of statin prescribing strategies, results were relatively insensitive to reasonable variation in the rate of myopathy and hepatitis, but were sensitive to an average decrement in quality of life from taking a pill every day47. When results are critically sensitive to a parameter estimate that is not supported by firm evidence, a good case can be made for further empirical study. Probabilistic sensitivity analysis, where the model is iterated many times varying all parameters simultaneously (drawing from a theoretical distributions for each variable), can be used to estimate global uncertainty for any model result61.

The impact of model structure is more difficult to evaluate. While numerical assumption parameters are easy to vary, the structure of a model is usually fixed, and implications of the modeler's decisions about how to simulate occurrence of clinical outcomes, for example, may be hard to assess. With any model, a balance must be struck between realism and simplicity; a model that is too simple may not capture the relevant effects, but a “black box” model that is too complex may be difficult to understand and troubleshoot, and may even obscure the essential tradeoff. Finding the right balance in structuring the model that captures the essential tradeoffs accurately and then designing an appropriate set of sensitivity analyses that bring to light the important assumptions are the key to deriving useful information from decision analysis modeling.

The use of a common, interpretable health impact metric (QALYs) is a strength of modeling, but it does assume a utilitarian philosophy. This has important implications. Net QALY impact may be positive if it results in a tiny benefit in many persons even if it results is substantial harm in a small number of persons. If a disadvantaged population is disproportionately represented in the harmed minority, for example, disparities in health may widen even while average population health improves. Similarly, QALY modeling implies that saving the life of a younger person (who will subsequently accrue more QALYs) is more valuable than saving the life of an older person. Furthermore, there is no consensus about the value of a QALY (and therefore no consensus about the threshold $/QALY below which an intervention is deemed “cost-effective), though presenting the $/QALY metric does allow the reader to decide for themselves. These and other limitations must be considered any time that QALYs are used as a measure of health impact36.


Research that identifies cardiovascular biomarkers and measures their performance is plentiful, but evidence of biomarker utility in terms of health impact is harder to find. Evaluating biomarker utility requires accounting for biomarker performance, but also estimating the downstream health consequences of having the biomarker information. For example, it is not enough to know what proportion of persons are reclassified by a biomarker into a different risk category; one must also know whether reclassification leads to health benefits that outweigh the downsides of biomarker measurement.

In this review, we discuss different options for generating evidence of biomarker effectiveness in terms of health impact. The randomized controlled trial, when designed appropriately, is the best means of directly measuring the health impact of a biomarker strategy. Randomized trials, however, are expensive and time-consuming, do not capture long-term effects, cannot be completely masked, and require that treatment implications of biomarker results are well-defined. Decision analysis modeling can also provide clinically actionable information about the health impact of using a biomarker. In contrast to randomized clinical trials, they are much easier and cheaper to conduct, can be used for systematic analysis of all reasonable strategies in all relevant subgroups, and can incorporate data on long-term effects. The quality of information from a decision analysis, however, depends on how well a simplified model captures the essential tradeoffs, and how much data are available to inform key assumptions.

As the age of personalized medicine is ushered in by an ever-increasing capacity to measure biomarkers relevant to cardiovascular disease, we need a strategy for translating biomarker discovery into better health for patients. We believe that randomized controlled trials should be conducted where there is significant uncertainty about short-term net health impact, and that decision analysis modeling should play an increasing role in biomarker evaluation6, 62, both in generating actionable information for clinicians and policymakers and for identifying key areas of uncertainty where more evidence is required from randomized trials and other clinical studies.

Supplementary Material



The authors would like to thank Thomas Newman, Michael Kohn, and Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo for their critical appraisal of the manuscript and help with referencing.





The authors have submitted an R01 grant application relevant to this review; they have no other conflicts of interest to disclose.

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