Why have so few proteomic biomarkers "survived" validation? (Sample size and independent validation considerations)

Proteomics. 2014 Jul;14(13-14):1587-92. doi: 10.1002/pmic.201300377. Epub 2014 May 16.


Proteomic biomarker discovery has led to the identification of numerous potential candidates for disease diagnosis, prognosis, and prediction of response to therapy. However, very few of these identified candidate biomarkers reach clinical validation and go on to be routinely used in clinical practice. One particular issue with biomarker discovery is the identification of significantly changing proteins in the initial discovery experiment that do not validate when subsequently tested on separate patient sample cohorts. Here, we seek to highlight some of the statistical challenges surrounding the analysis of LC-MS proteomic data for biomarker candidate discovery. We show that common statistical algorithms run on data with low sample sizes can overfit and yield misleading misclassification rates and AUC values. A common solution to this problem is to prefilter variables (via, e.g. ANOVA and or use of correction methods such as Bonferonni or false discovery rate) to give a smaller dataset and reduce the size of the apparent statistical challenge. However, we show that this exacerbates the problem yielding even higher performance metrics while reducing the predictive accuracy of the biomarker panel. To illustrate some of these limitations, we have run simulation analyses with known biomarkers. For our chosen algorithm (random forests), we show that the above problems are substantially reduced if a sufficient number of samples are analyzed and the data are not prefiltered. Our view is that LC-MS proteomic biomarker discovery data should be analyzed without prefiltering and that increasing the sample size in biomarker discovery experiments should be a very high priority.

Keywords: Bioinformatics; Biomarker panels; Cross-validation; Proteomic discovery; Random forest; Sample size.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Chromatography, Liquid / methods
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Trees
  • Humans
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Models, Statistical
  • Proteomics / methods*
  • Sample Size
  • Validation Studies as Topic


  • Biomarkers