What’s a micro RNA … and what’s it got to do with prostate cancer?


Since (after yesterday’s glut) there appear to be no new news reports for the weekend, we thought it might be useful to offer a little education on so-called “micro RNAs” and their potential roles in prostate cancer.

RNA stands for “ribonucleic acid.” Many readers will be familiar with so-called “messenger RNA” (mRNA) as the molecule that acts as a “pattern” for the translation of the genes in your DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) into the enzymes and proteins that your body needs to function. You may also be familiar with “transfer RNA” (tRNA) molecules, which help to manage the actual translation process.

Since the early 1990s, we have also known of the existence of “micro RNA” or miRNA molecules. These forms of RNA are primarily involved in controlling “gene expression” — the switching on and switching off of particular genes and therefore the regulation of how much of a particular enzyme or protein is made in and available to specific cells in the body. We aren’t going to get into the details of how this happens. If you want to learn about that, we suggest you read the article about micro RNA on the Wikipedia web site.

So what do micro RNA molecules have to do with cancer in general — and prostate cancer in particular?

Well miRNAs appear to be important in the development and progression of at least some types of cancer. For example, researchers have shown that by measuring the activities of the genes that code for specific miRNA molecules it is possible to distinguish between certain types of cancer. In other words, certain miRNA “signatures” may permit us to better classify specific types of cancer.

In practical terms, this means that doctors may, in the future, be able to determine very specific information about cancers in individual patients, and target treatment based on that specific information. In the case of a form of leukemia called “chronic lymphocytic leukemia,” it is already possible to distinguish between aggressive and less aggressive forms of the disease based on such an miRNA signature! At least two companies are attempting to commercialize this test.

What about prostate cancer?

The potential of miRNA in the prevention, diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of prostate cancer has barely been touched as yet, but work in this area is starting, and could “explode” very quickly. According to Schaeffer et al., there are just over 20 articles published on the topic of micro RNAs and prostate cancer at present. We already know, for example, that two miRNAs  are differentially expressed in tumors with Gleason > 7. It has also been shown that micro RNA profiling can be used to classify the degree of sensitivity or refractoriness of prostate cancer cells to androgens.

The important issue here is not in the details (yet). What is important is that we have increasing knowledge about the way in which micro RNA molecules can affect the way in which growth of cancer cells may be controlled. In time, it is reasonable to expect that such information will allow us to apply this knowledge — not only in the diagnosis and prognosis for prostate cancer, but also in the management of the disease.

Such abilities will not come to fruition tomorrow … but maybe some time in the next 10-15 years, which might well be in time for a 50-year-old man diagnosed with early stage prostate cancer on Monday!

One Response

  1. Also, upon reading the related articles, miRNA signatures may enable researchers to determine the original tissue which gave rise to a particular cancer, thereby allowing them to develop a treatment that targets the cancer based upon the original tissue type. So there is a potential that miRNAs, as they are being used today in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, can act as cancer biomarkers with prostate cancer.

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