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Sources Of Bias In Specimens For Research About Molecular Markers For Cancer

David F. Ransohoff, Margaret L. Gourlay

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Claims about the diagnostic or prognostic accuracy of markers often prove disappointing when “discrimination” found between cancers versus normals is due to bias, a systematic difference between compared groups. This article describes a framework to help simplify and organize current problems in marker research by focusing on the role of specimens as a source of bias in observational research and using that focus to address problems and improve reliability. The central idea is that the “fundamental comparison” in research about markers (ie, the comparison done to assess whether a marker discriminates) involves two distinct processes that are “connected” by specimens. If subject selection (first process) creates baseline inequality between groups being compared, then laboratory analysis of specimens (second process) may erroneously find positive results. Although both processes are important, subject selection more fundamentally influences the quality of marker research, because it can hardwire bias into all comparisons in a way that cannot be corrected by any refinement in laboratory analysis. An appreciation of the separateness of these two processes—and placing investigators with appropriate expertise in charge of each—may increase the reliability of research about cancer biomarkers.