Boston University School of Medicine researchers may have identified a molecule that could lead to better methods of detection and treatment for lung cancer, according to a Friday BU Medical Campus press release.
BUSM researcher and professor Catalina Perdomo, the study’s lead author, said the main finding is the discovery of a new type of regulatory molecule known as microRNA.
“In smokers that have lung cancer, the level of these molecules are actually lower than in smokers that don’t have cancer,” she said. “So, because of that, we think that we can measure the levels of these molecules and predict who’s going to have cancer and who’s not going to have cancer.”
When researchers tested the molecule in mice, they found that the new type of microRNA inhibit the growth of cancer cells and made tumors shrink, Perdomo said.
“If we go to the tumors themselves, we see that the expression or the levels of these molecules are lower,” she said. “… We believe that we can [potentially] use the molecule to treat cancer, and it would be a very specific treatment.”
A total of 21 researchers worked on the project, Perdomo said.
BUSM researcher and professor Avrum Spira, one of the study’s senior authors, said the newly discovered microRNA, labeled “miR-4423,” is a small piece of genetic material found in the lungs and airways of patients that primarily functions to regulate other parts of the genome.
“We basically put in a fiberoptic scope — we call it a bronchoscope — into patients’ trachea windpipes,” he said. “We brushed cells that lined that windpipe, and then we looked at the genetic material in these cells using a relatively new technology called next generation sequencing.’”
Changes in these molecules may serve as an early warning sign for lung cancer, Spira said.
“What we did in this study is show that these cells that line the windpipe — that we can get through a procedure called a tracheoscopy — may be like a canary in a coal mine, where the genetic changes in the cells could detect a lung cancer deep in the lungs,” Spira said.
Medical professionals would be able to sample cells in the upper airway of a patient’s windpipe in order to test for the presence of microRNAs, and, in turn, the potential for cancerous cells to develop, Spira said.
“The problem with lung cancer clinically is that we almost always diagnose it at a late stage,” he said. “That’s why it’s the number one cause of cancer-related death, by far, in this country. The reason we always diagnose it late is that it develops deep in your lungs…. So it often has to grow to a big enough size to where we can get a piece of it, and by then it often has [already] spread outside the lungs.”
The National Cancer Institute estimates 373,489 Americans live with lung cancer, according to the release. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death among men and women in the U.S.
Researchers’ work with mice suggests that microRNAs may one day become a method of treatment for lung cancer, although much further research is necessary to know for sure, Spira said.
“This is a potential new tumor suppressor,” he said. “MicroRNAs can be used as therapeutics. There are a number of companies that are developing approaches to deliver these regulatory microRNAs as therapeutics. This work suggests that we could potentially use this as a novel treatment down the road.”
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute Early Detection Research Network, the National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program and NSF Merit Review grants. Results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, according to the release.