Science Pool

Unlocking the Potential of Biomarkers: Enhancing Drug Development and Clinical Practice with a Focus on Aging

Biomarkers are very useful tools for drug developers as well as for clinicians. In drug research and development, they add value as they improve the success rate of clinical trials. In the clinic, they validate the eligibility of patients as well as the efficacy of an approved treatment. In the recent Evotec webinar on aging, Elizabeth van der Kam, SVP, Translational Biomarkers and Human Sample Management, gave an overview on biomarkers in general and the role of biomarkers in aging.

In fact, the success rate of clinical studies can by doubled by introducing biomarkers early on, that can predict efficacy and potential safety issues. Biomarkers also may be important to reduce costs by running smarter trails in smaller groups of patients and if translated to companion diagnostics, biomarkers enhance the readiness of payers to reimburse a novel drug, but they also enable higher profits as the drug can be sold together with a diagnostic test. Therefore, Evotec´s strategy is to develop a biomarker as early as possible during the R&D process.

Types of biomarkers

There are several types of biomarkers. Useful for early studies are biomarkers that demonstrate target engagement, meaning they show that a drug candidate hits the target in the relevant organ and triggers a response. However, target engagement not necessarily means that this is relevant for the disease.

Another classification consists of surrogate biomarkers, which exhibit correlations with the disease or its progression and could hold relevance in the context of the disease More useful are efficacy markers which are not just correlated but causative for the disease. Another important class of biomarkers are safety biomarkers which, as an example, alert a clinical trial leader or a physician that the drug also hits another target and could potentially cause an issue. Then there are stratification markers indicating the likelihood of a patient to respond to treatment. This is important as non-responders should not be included in trials or prescribed an ineffective treatment. Last but not least, there are diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers that help to better understand the disease and its progression, to establish the right dosage, assess efficacy and predict disease progression and monitor the patients.

In any case, a biomarker needs to be translatable and relevant, and its measurement should be feasible, robust, reliable, and durable.

Biomarkers in aging

The situation is complex in aging. Chronological age is not the best inclusion criterium for clinical trials of medicines trying to improve the health span of elderly patients as chronological age can be very different from biological age.

But how to define biological age? What markers are out there? Of course, there are a lot of markers of biological age, e.g., body composition, body fat, physical appearance and function, muscle mass, grip strength, walking speed, balance, wrinkles, grey hair, but also blood-based changes in terms of hormone and vitamin levels and progressing diseases such as poor eyesight, osteoporosis, declining kidney function, and many more.

However, none of these markers is sufficient as a stand-alone data point. Some of the changes observed in elderly people can also be found in younger people or in patients with non-age-related diseases. The best biomarkers are the ones that can be established without subjective assessments.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that aging is not a disease, and that any intervention should be made early before the onset of typical signs of aging. Ideally, one would have biomarkers that can tell which category of older people will develop certain diseases. At present however, there are biomarkers indicating changes in many pathways and targets, but these often only indicate a certain chance of getting a disease.

The challenge

At present, biomedicine does not have access to markers that can predict certain biological deteriorations, let alone predict potential success of a treatment. And how to define a subpopulation and forecast treatment success without waiting for years to see an effect?

Currently one of the best overall indicators of biological aging is inflammaging. It demonstrates changes in the immune system, inflammation, and an imbalance in the innate or the adaptive immune system, thereby predicting a high risk of unhealthy aging. However, inflammaging can also be caused by lifestyle and gender, so it is not an ideal biomarker. Recently, under review of the U.S. National Institute for Aging, the TAME BIO (Targeted Ageing with MEtformin) project tried to establish a basis for future biomarker discovery and validation and accelerate the pace of ageing-research. 

The project started out with more than 200 potential biomarker candidates that were screened for feasibility, dependency on gender, and environmental factors, etc., bringing down the list of candidates to less than 90. Then they were assessed for disease-relation, robustness, their association to multi-morbidity and the usefulness to clinical trials, leaving a final set of eight candidates. This was, however, a purely theoretical exercise and whether these candidates are useful in real life needs to be proven. At present, the jury is still out on useful biomarkers for trials and therapies to prolong health span and quality and duration of life.

Learn more in the webinar “A Spotlight on Ageing” by Elizabeth van der Kam, SVP, Translational Biomarkers and Human Sample Management at Evotec