MicroRNA — A Switch that Determines Cell Behavior and Holds Answers on Disease, Prevention, Treatment
ROCHESTER, Minn. — Thousands of research studies are under way to better understand microRNA — short for micro ribonucleic acid. These tiny genetic strands may play a role in identifying, treating and possibly preventing many diseases, according to the July issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter.
MicroRNA acts like a switch that changes cell behavior. Different microRNAs are in each tissue of the body. For instance, what makes liver cells unique is, in part, their expression of a particular microRNA that influences which protein is produced.
About 1,000 distinct human microRNAs have been identified. Each can influence and regulate expression of hundreds of genes that determine a major change for the cell, such as whether it lives or dies, multiplies rapidly or develops into bone, muscle or another type of cell.
MicroRNA is a relatively new discovery. Scientists have been aware of its role for about 20 years, and there is still much to be learned. Scientists hope that microRNA research might eventually lead to improved diagnosis, more accurate predictions of disease outcomes and new treatment and medication options with fewer side effects.
Diseases being studied include:
- Heart failure — MicroRNAs associated with this disease process may eventually tie into innovative therapeutic approaches.
- Alzheimer’s disease — Studies have linked survival of brain cells (neurons) to their ability to produce microRNAs. Neurons incapable of doing so slowly die.
- Hepatitis C virus — This virus “hijacks” certain microRNA to make copies of the virus within liver cells. Work is under way to develop a treatment that might keep the microRNA away from the virus.
- Schizophrenia — Researchers are looking at possible associations between microRNA and this severe psychiatric disorder.
- Cancer — Scientists have used microRNA to destroy liver cancer cells without harming healthy liver cells. Researchers have discovered a correlation between certain microRNAs and aggressive prostate cancer.