JUN 09, 2016 3:04 PM PDT

Micro RNA Panel Predicts Liver Cancer Risks

Micro RNAs surface once again as a powerful player in human health and disease. Scientists have implicated a panel of 15 micro RNAs that can predict liver cancer associated with Hepatitis B. Even more exciting, the new micro RNA panel can be run on a minimally invasive blood sample to yield results are much more reliable than current methods.
Tumor nodules in a liver.


Liver cancer strikes nearly 40,000 adults in the US annually. As the tenth most common cancer types and one of the most difficult-to-treat diseases, early diagnosis is crucial to good outcome for patients.

Of the patients diagnosed with liver cancer known as hepatocellular carcinoma, about 50 percent of cases are caused by the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). The virus targets the liver and repeatedly attacks this organ, causing cellular damage and making liver cancer 100 times more likely to occur.
The link between liver cancer and micro RNA was implicated previously, but it was not conclusive and the identities of specific suspect micro RNAs were not known. Now, in their study, the research team at the Thomas Jefferson University has finally revealed these culprits.
Starting with 373 HBV patients who were cancer-free, the team performed extensive genomic analysis on the blood samples. After about 4.5 years, the team assessed the genetic profiles of these individuals again. But this time, 40 people had been diagnosed with liver cancer. And in these people, the team found that 15 micro RNAs had shifted in expression levels from pre-cancer diagnosis to post-cancer diagnosis. This indicated the 15 micro RNAs were likely involved in liver cancer development, and thus can be used to predict the cancer before it even begins.
"This research confirms previous work on micro RNAs and liver cancer and goes further to show that these microRNAs may be able to predict the development of liver cancer through a non-invasive blood test," said Chun Wang, first study author.
The team tested the diagnostic power of the 15 micro RNA panel against the current liver cancer biomarker known as alpha-fetoprotein (AFP). Whereas AFP misclassified 94 of patients as cancer-free, the micro RNA panel didn’t. The micro RNA panel also correctly identified those who weren’t at risk for the cancer.
"We need to find more microRNAs that may predict liver cancer in order to sharpen this tool for identifying high risk patients," says Dr. Yang. "Through collaboration with Dr. Hann in the Department of Medicine at Jefferson, we continue to work on improving this diagnostic method."
Since their discovery in the early 1990s and 2000s, micro RNAs have been implicated in a variety of human conditions, cancer notwithstanding. As more research such as this emerge, the importance of these small molecules become only more apparent.
Additional source: MNT
About the Author
Doctorate (PhD)
I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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