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Molecular aberration signals cancer

Several scientists, including one at Simon Fraser University, have made a discovery that strongly links a little understood molecule, which is similar to DNA, to cancer and cancer survival.

EMBO Reports, a life sciences journal published by the European Molecular Biology Organization, has just published online the scientists' findings about small non-coding RNAs.

While RNA is known to be key to our cells' successful creation of proteins, the role of small non-coding RNAs, a newly discovered cousin of the former, has eluded scientific understanding for the most part. Until now, it was only surmised that most of these molecules had nothing to do with protein production.

However, scientists at SFU, the University of British Columbia and the B.C. Cancer Agency have discovered that many non-coding RNAs are perturbed in cancerous human cells, including breast and lung, in a specific way. The disturbance, which manifests itself as shorter than normal molecular messaging, also occurs at a specific spot on genes.

"These two identifiable characteristics give cancer-causing non-coding RNAs a chemical signature that makes it easy for scientists to identify them in the early stages of many different types of cancer," says Steven Jones.

The SFU molecular biology and biochemistry professor is this study's senior author, and the associate director and head of bioinformatics at the B.C. Cancer Agency's Genome Sciences Centre.

"These molecules' existence can also be used to classify cancer patients into subgroups of individuals with different survival outcomes," adds Jones. "While the precise reason why a tumour would change the behaviour of genes in this way is not known, it is likely that it represents a mechanism by which the cancer can subvert and takeover the normally well controlled activity of our genes."

This study uncovered non-coding RNAs' cancerous role by using high-throughput sequencing techniques to analyse reams of genetic information on normal and diseased tissue as part of the Cancer Genome Atlas project.

The Cancer Genome Atlas is an ambitious project to characterize the genetic material of more than 500 tumours from more than 20 different cancers. The project provides a goldmine of data for bioinformaticians such as Jones.


Contact: Carol Thorbes
Simon Fraser University

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