Biomarkers are widely used not only as prognostic or diagnostic indicators, or as surrogate markers of disease in clinical trials, but also to formulate theories of pathogenesis. We identify two problems in the use of biomarkers in mechanistic studies. The first problem arises in the case of multifactorial diseases, where different combinations of multiple causes result in patient heterogeneity. The second problem arises when a pathogenic mediator is difficult to measure. This is the case of the oxidative stress (OS) theory of disease, where the causal components are reactive oxygen species (ROS) that have very short half-lives. In this case, it is usual to measure the traces left by the reaction of ROS with biological molecules, rather than the ROS themselves. Borrowing from the philosophical theories of signs, we look at the different facets of biomarkers and discuss their different value and meaning in multifactorial diseases and system medicine to inform their use in patient stratification in personalized medicine.
- oxidative stress