Cancer biomarkers represent a revolutionary advance toward personalised cancer treatment, promising therapies that are tailored to subgroups of patients sharing similar generic traits. Notwithstanding the optimism driving this development, biomarkers also present an array of social and ethical questions, as witnessed in sporadic debates across different literatures. This review article seeks to consolidate thesev debates in a mapping of the complex terrain of ethical and social aspects of cancer biomarker research. This mapping was undertaken from the vantage point offered by a working cancer biomarker research centre called the Centre for Cancer Biomarkers (CCBIO) in Norway, according to a dialectic move between the literature and discussions with researchers and practitioners in the laboratory. Starting in the lab, we found that, with the exception of some classical bioethical dilemmas, researchers regarded many issues relative to the ethos of the biomarker community; how the complexity and uncertainty characterising biomarker research influence their scientific norms of quality. Such challenges to the ethos of cancer research remain largely implicit, outside the scope of formal bioethical enquiry, yet form the basis for other social and ethical issues. Indeed, looking out from the lab we see how questions of complexity, uncertainty and quality contribute to debates around social and global justice; undermining policies for the prioritisation of care, framing the stratification of those patients worthy of treatment, and limiting global access to this highly sophisticated research. We go on to discuss biomarker research within the culturally-constructed ‘war on cancer’ and highlight an important tension between the expectations of ‘magic bullets’ and the complexity and uncertainty faced in the lab. We conclude by arguing, with researchers in the CCBIO, for greater reflexivity and humility in cancer biomarker research and policy.
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