Here’s another of our pieces for Al Jazeera Online, looking at new research on tiny molecules called microRNAs, and their possible role in breast cancer.
Last year an international team led by Cancer Research UK scientists at our Cambridge Research Institute unveiled the results of a huge research project called METABRIC.
They used advanced gene sequencing techniques to analyse the patterns of gene activity in breast tumours from thousands of women, revealing the molecular ‘signature’ of each tumour.
The results showed that the disease could be divided into ten distinct subtypes, each with its own characteristics and outlook.
That work was just the beginning of the story. Since then, the researchers, led by Professor Carlos Caldas, have been delving into these subtypes in ever greater depth, trying to figure out what makes them different and how we can tackle each one more effectively.
In a new paper, published in the leading scientific journal Nature, the team took another look at the thousand breast cancer samples from the METABRIC study. But rather than looking at genes that bear the instructions to make proteins in our cells, the researchers focused instead on a set of genes that encode tiny lengths of RNA – a relative of the larger DNA molecules that makes up our genome.
In recent years it has become clear that these short pieces of RNA – known as microRNAs, or miRNAs for short – can help to control when and where protein-making genes are switched on or off, and they’re an increasingly hot topic in the world of cancer research.
And now it looks like they may be playing a role in controlling how the immune system responds to certain breast cancers.
- Image by Ryan Jeffs, taken from Wikimedia Commons, showing messenger RNA and microRNA in cells.