Study of small molecules paves way for brain cancer therapy

The findings of a study that could advance the development of targeted gene therapies and improve prognosis could be beneficial for patients suffering from an aggressive brain cancer.

The University of Illinois study was able to understand better the role of microRNAs, which are small, non-coding RNA molecules that regulate the expression of genes such as oncogenes or tumour suppressor genes.

“We have advanced the understanding of the role of microRNAs on glioblastoma multiforme, a deadly brain cancer, by studying the networks between the microRNAs and their target genes associated with different stages of cancer development and progression,” said Kristin Delfino, a U of I doctoral candidate in animal science with a focus in genetics and bioinformatics.

U of I researchers used a novel approach to identify the simultaneous association between tens of thousands of microRNAs, target genes, and glioblastoma progression and survival.

Delfino integrated clinical information such as race, gender, therapy, survival, and cancer stage from 253 patients together with genome-wide microRNA and gene expression data.

“When you look at a single microRNA alone, it can seem significant. But when you evaluate it in the context of all other microRNAs, some turn out to be more significant and others may not be as significant as they appear on their own,” Delfino said.

“The systems biology approach that we implemented is critical for understanding the gene pathways influencing cancer,” added Delfino.

The study evaluated 534 microRNAs together, unlike the typical method of studying one at a time.

They confirmed 25 microRNAs previously associated with glioblastoma survival and identified 20 other microRNAs associated with initiation or growth of other cancer types such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and gastric adenocarcinoma.

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“These findings suggest common pathways that can be targeted with similar drugs already developed and tested for other cancers,” said Sandra Rodriguez Zas, co-researcher and U of I professor of animal science and bioinformatics.

“These biomarkers can serve as the basis to dig deeper into cancer studies,” said Delfino.

“Cancer affects us all in one way or another. Unfortunately, we still don’t know how it’s caused, what takes place when it is caused and how to cure it. But these biomarkers give us guidance into developing specific gene therapies to target glioblastoma,” added Delfino.

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