The science around microRNAs is in the news again after North Carolina State University researchers report they have discovered a way to identify cancerous cells that could lead to “new methods of disease detection and treatment.” This comes on the heels of a fast-tracked Australian mesothelioma clinical trial that manipulates microRNAs to treat the cancer.
microRNAs, or miRNAs, are tiny molecules found within cells that serve a function in primary biological processes such as organ development, fat metabolism, cell proliferation and death. When miRNAs function properly, a person remains healthy. However, “disregulation” of miRNAs can lead to diseases, including mesothelioma and other cancers.
Directing Cancer Treatment Through microRNAs
Although other researchers have conducted basic DNA mathematical computations in test tubes, NC State researchers set out to attempt DNA-based logic computations to detect the presence of specific microRNAs in living human cells. According to a press release from NC State University, by performing these Boolean computations, when two miRNAs are present in a cell, the scientists could direct the output to release a “fluorescent molecule.”
In practice, however, instead of creating a glowing cell, “we could attach therapeutic agents that are released to treat the disease itself,” said NC State chemist Alex Deiters and co-author of the study.
When two conditions are met, as shown by the result of an “AND” Boolean computation when two specific miRNAs are present indicating cancer, the result could be “to release a drug that could kill a cancer cell,” said James Hemphill, Deiters’ graduate student and co-author of the study, according to the News & Observer.
How Can This Benefit Mesothelioma Patients?
Mesothelioma, the signature cancer of asbestos exposure, is difficult to treat due to its aggressive nature which often fights off even the strongest of medicines. Although chemotherapy is the primary treatment modality for the cancer, it has shown to be chemo-resistant at times, eventually rendering the treatments ineffective. One way oncologists can combat resistance to treatments is to target them specifically to the person’s unique genetic characteristics and the unique characteristics of the mesothelioma.
Ricki Lewis, PhD, geneticist and author of The Forever Fix, said in an email interview, “Cancer isn’t just one disease, it is many, and even within the same patient, a cancer’s characteristics change over time.”
One reason cancer is dynamic is because of microRNAs. “microRNAs orchestrate the turning off of certain genes as a cancer grows, invades, and spreads,” said Ms. Lewis. In fact, due to their intricate role in gene regulation, many leading scientists refer to miRNAs as the “master maestros of the genome.”
When asked about the importance of NC State’s study for mesothelioma, Ms. Lewis said, “Detecting patterns of microRNA deployment and tagging them to delivery of a treatment would be a rational and personalized way to treat mesothelioma.”
Targeting therapy for mesothelioma patients optimizes the potential for success of the treatment and offers mesothelioma treatment options that may not otherwise have been considered. Close to 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year. There is no cure for the disease.
The NC State study can be found in the June 24 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.