Teams from QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Institute of Molecular Bioscience (UQ) have found that a particular RNA (Ribonucleic acid) molecule goes missing in aggressive cancers.
QIMR Berghofer’s Dr Nicole Cloonan said the finding could provide a clearer prognosis for breast cancer patients, and ultimately open the door for new treatments.
“Essentially, this particular gene fragment, or microRNA, normally acts like an emergency brake in our genetic program, ensuring our cells continue to reproduce normally,” Dr Cloonan said.
“But we’ve identified that this “emergency brake” fails in invasive, aggressive tumours. Its sudden absence in cancer tests would be a clear marker that a tumour is likely to spread.
“And we know that primary breast cancer rarely kills; it is those aggressive tumours that spread, or metastasise, which result in poor outcomes,” Dr Cloonan said.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. Survival can depend on when the cancer is diagnosed; once it has metastasised there is a five-year survival rate of only 21%.
“But this research has wider implications too. Although we focussed on breast cancer, it’s clear this microRNA is also missing in aggressive liver, stomach, brain and skin cancers, and potentially others too. What we’ve uncovered seems to be a common cellular process which could be a new drug target,” Dr Cloonan said.
“These microRNAs were once thought the “junk” of our genetic programs, something that finetuned pathways but that was all.
“But in recent years, we’ve come to appreciate the driving role they play in cancer, and as this work shows, a key role in preventing breast cancer cells from migrating throughout a person’s body.”
This research is published online in the advance issue of RNA and can be viewed at http://rnajournal.cshlp.org/content/early/2013/10/24/rna.042143.113.full.pdf+html
This research was funded by the Australian Research Council, and used breast cancer samples provided by the Brisbane Breast Bank.
** QIMR Berghofer’s Dr Nicole Cloonan is available for interview **
The QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute is a world leading translational research institute focused on cancer, infectious diseases, mental health and a range of complex diseases. Working in close collaboration with clinicians and other research institutes, our aim is to improve health by developing new diagnostics, better treatments and prevention strategies.
QIMR Berghofer gratefully acknowledges the support of the Queensland Government.
For more information about QIMR Berghofer, visit www.qimrberghofer.edu.au