MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are small (21-23 nucleotides), single-stranded RNA molecules that function as regulators of gene expression. The human genome encodes several hundred miRNAs and abnormal expression of these has been associated with cancer progression. We have previously reported on miRNA involvement in cholesterol regulation, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and liver cancer. Now a collaboration between Rosetta Genomics, NYU Langone Medical Center and Vanderbilt School of Medicine has identified the potential utility of miR-33 for development of therapies targeting malignant mesothelioma (MM).
MM is a rare cancer that has been associated with exposure to asbestos dust (although a small proportion of patients have never been exposed). Taking anywhere between 20 and 50 years for symptoms to develop, the cancer affects the mesothelium, a thin layer of tissue surrounding the internal organs. The most common form of MM is pleural, involving the lining of the lungs, but it may also affect other tissues such as the peritoneum. Current treatment options, including surgery and chemotherapy, are limited and often confounded by late diagnosis because of the absence of symptoms.
This latest study found that MM cell lines derived from patients with aggressive disease failed to express miR-31, a microRNA that has also been linked to suppression of breast cancer metastasis. Functional studies, where miR-31 was reintroduced to the cells, showed that the microRNA could inhibit proliferation, migration, invasion, and clonogenicity of mesothelioma cells. miR-31 suppressed expression of a number of factors associated with maintenance of DNA replication and cell cycle progression, including the pro-survival phosphatase PPP6C. The mRNA for PPP6C, which contains three miR-31-binding sites in its 3′-UTR, was down-regulated when miR-31 was present and up-regulated in clinical MM specimens compared to matched normal tissues.
Whilst the study, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, reveals a key role for miR-31 in MM, considerable challenges remain to exploit this finding for therapy of the disease.