2 min readScientists Discover RNA Molecule that Blocks Development of Cancer Cells

Breast cancer cells; proteins of the cytoskeleton are shown in red. Image by Lutz Langbein, German Cancer Research Center.

Heidelberg, Germany – Scientists of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) have discovered a tiny RNA molecule, called miR-520, which at once blocks two important pathways in the development of cancer in cells. In estrogen receptor-negative breast cancer, the production of this microRNA is often reduced and this is correlated with malignant behaviour of tumour cells. The DKFZ team has found out that tumours with low levels of miR-520 have a particularly strong tendency to metastasize.

MicroRNAs or miRNAs are tiny RNA molecules that have only about 20 nucleotides and do not code for proteins. They regulate many important processes in cells by binding to target messenger RNAs – the instructions for protein production –, thus blocking production of the respective protein. In cancer, the production of some miRNAs is often reduced or amplified. This particularly affects miRNAs that regulate the activity of cancer-promoting genes.

A key molecule in the development of cancer is a transcription factor called NFkappaB, which is an important switch for many genes with inflammation-promoting effects. At DKFZ, Professor Dr. Stefan Wiemann and collaborators have now investigated whether microRNAs that affect NFkappaB production are deregulated in breast cancer. Jointly with colleagues at Heidelberg and Tuebingen University Hospitals, the DKFZ team studied over 800 miRNAs and discovered a family of RNA molecules known as miR-520, which particularly strongly reduce the production of NFkappaB. “If the cells produce less NFkappaB, the production of inflammation-promoting signalling molecules is reduced. This puts a brake on cancer growth, because these signalling molecules promote invasive capacity, formation of new vessels and metastasis,” says Ioanna Keklikoglou, a doctoral student Wiemann’s department, explaining this mechanism.

However, miR-520 does not only act like a cancer brake by suppressing NFkappaB. In addition, Wiemann’s team discovered that this microRNA also blocks another cancer-promoting signalling pathway that is triggered by growth factor TGF-beta. TGF-beta signals cause malignant cells to be less firmly anchored in the tissue and, thus, better able to invade surrounding organs – a characteristic feature of cancer cells.

Subsequently, the DKFZ researchers studied the question of whether the findings obtained in cancer cells in the culture dish are also involved in breast cancer. Studying tumour tissue samples of 76 patients, the team discovered that tumours which have already spread to the lymph nodes produce less miR-520 than those which have not yet spread. However, this connection was only found in tumours that do not produce receptors for the female sexual hormone, estrogen (ER-negative tumours).

“Our findings clearly demonstrate that miR-520 is a genuine cancer brake that suppresses the malignant behaviour of tumour cells in two different ways at once,” said Stefan Wiemann, commenting on the findings reported in his now published work. “This cancer brake appears to fail in many ER-negative breast tumours – and also in cells of other types of cancer, as colleagues have now demonstrated.” ER-negative breast cancer is particularly difficult to treat in many cases. Developing a microRNA therapy that blocks several cancer-promoting signalling pathways at once may therefore be an interesting option.

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