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URMC / Wilmot Cancer Institute / News & Events / Dialogue Blog / March 2018 / Looking to RNA for Answers

Looking to RNA for Answers

Cancer is a group of diseases in which the body’s cells divide uncontrollably and invade nearby tissues. Scientists at Wilmot Cancer Institute and the University of Rochester’s Center for RNA Biology are working to understand more about how and why this happens.

One piece of the puzzle they’re studying is ribonucleic acid, or RNA, which is found in all cells. RNA is made in the nucleus of a cell from our DNA, which holds the instruction manual for life. RNA puts those instructions into action.

RNA comes in many forms. One form, called messenger RNA (mRNA), carries those instructions out of the nucleus to the ribosomes, where proteins are made. These proteins are essential for functions ranging from digestion to protecting us from disease. If the mRNA has a bad copy of instructions, then either a faulty protein or no protein is created, leading to diseases like cancer.

Understanding the quality-control system

Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D.Lynne E. Maquat, Ph.D., director of the Center for RNA Biology, studies a quality control process that blocks cells from making faulty proteins. Called nonsense-mediated mRNA decay (NMD), this process comes into play when mRNA has a set of instructions with a mistake that will lead to short or incomplete proteins. NMD acts like a set of factory inspectors that find and destroy this mRNA before the faulty proteins can be made.

Sometimes, though, NMD doesn’t catch the mistakes and harmful proteins are made. This process plays a part in one-third of all inherited diseases, such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, and one-third of all acquired diseases, including a number of cancers.

One reason is that tumors can influence how these inspectors work. Maquat and her team are looking for ways to stop tumors from interfering with NMD with the goal of finding new ways to treat cancer.

Slowing cancer’s growth

A team from Maquat’s lab has also identified a protein called Tudor-SN that is important as cells prepare to divide. This protein controls many microRNAs, molecules that are very small RNAs that control the expression of tens of thousands of genes.

The scientists found that when Tudor-SN is removed from human cells, levels of hundreds of microRNAs go up, putting the brakes on genes that encourage cell growth. This slows down the process of cell division known as the cell cycle, which goes awry in cancer.

Maquat and Reyad A. Elbarbary, Ph.D., a former post-doctoral fellow in Maquat’s lab, have filed a patent application for methods that target Tudor-SN for the treatment and prevention of cancer. They continue to study how Tudor-SN works in concert with other molecules and proteins so that scientists can identify the most appropriate drugs to target it.

Other avenues

Scientists at the Center for RNA Biology are also looking at RNA’s other roles in cancer to find new treatment strategies. For example, Mitchell O’Connell, Ph.D., is studying how microRNAs can interfere with the way genes are expressed and lead to cancer. He and his team are using the gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, which he has adapted to edit RNA, to learn more about the proteins involved in this process.

Yi-Tao Yu, Ph.D., and his team are studying various ways to modify mRNA so that it can override mistakes in genetic instructions. Sometimes there’s a premature stop signal that orders a cell to stop reading the genetic instructions in mRNA partway through the process, resulting in an incomplete protein. The Yu lab is working to alter mRNA in ways that turn “stop” signals into “go” signals, creating full length proteins and preventing diseases like cancer. 

The study of RNA biology is allowing scientists and physicians to explore entirely new treatment strategies for cancer and a wide range of other genetic and acquired disorders.

Learn more about the work being done at the Center for RNA Biology.

Lydia Fernandez | 3/6/2018

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