Sensitivity and specificity: twin goals of proteomics assays. Can they be combined?

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A major ambition of proteomics is the provision of assays that can diagnose disease and monitor therapies. These assays are required to be sensitive and specific for individual proteins, and in most cases to quantify more than one protein in the same sample. The two main technologies currently used for proteomics assays are based on mass spectrometry and panels of affinity molecules such as antibodies. In the first part of this review the most sensitive existing assays based on these technologies are described and compared with the gold standard of ELISA. Analytical sensitivity is defined and related to the limit of detection, and analytical specificity is defined and shown to depend on molecular proofreading steps, similar to those applied in living systems whenever there is a need for high fidelity. It is shown that at present neither mass spectrometry nor panels of affinity molecules offer the necessary combination of sensitivity and specificity required for multiplexed assays. In the second part of this review the growing numbers of assays that use additional proofreading steps to combine sensitivity with specificity are described. These include assays based on proximity ligation and slow off-rate modified aptamers. Finally the review considers what improvements might be possible in the near future, and concludes that further development of proteomics assays incorporating advanced proofreading steps are most likely to provide the necessary combination of sensitivity and specificity, without incurring high development costs.

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