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Cancer is known to be a consequence of the accumulation of mutations and epigenetic alterations of oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes, which cooperate to cause a normal cell to transform into a cancer cell. Thus, the clinical behaviour of cancer cells has been logically predicted to reflect the consequences of these mutated and altered genes. This hypothesis has led to the hope that measurement of gene activity or expression can be used as biomarkers to accurately determine which tumours will recur and which are likely to respond to specific treatments. Consequently, for over three decades, there has been an ongoing search to identify mutated or otherwise altered genes that can precisely predict the behaviour of tumours with regards to risk for recurrence and response to chemotherapy.
In the May issue of Gut, Li et al reported on the discovery of a microRNA gene expression signature that shows considerable promise for determining the prognosis of individuals with gastric cancer.1 Their identification of this panel of prognostic microRNAs for gastric cancer is one of several recent studies that have found this class of small non-coding RNAs to be useful for predicting the behaviour of a variety of different cancers, including acute myeloid leukaemia, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, and non-small cell lung cancer.2 These reports highlight that this relatively newly identified class of RNA molecules is showing substantial potential to be used as diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers for cancer. Beyond the promise that microRNAs hold as candidate biomarkers for the early detection and management of cancer, there is also considerable excitement for the use of miRNAs as a novel class of therapeutic targets and as an entirely new class of therapeutic agents for the treatment of cancers.
RNA and microRNA
In order to appreciate where our understanding of microRNAs is …
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