MicroRNAs in Cancer


Initially considered an epiphenomenon, micro ribonucleic acids (also called miRNAs) and other small noncoding RNA molecules are now considered major players in cell biology. MiRNAs regulate gene expression through effects on translation, transcription and chromatin modification. Multiple miRNAs are dysregulated in human cancer and affect cellular proliferation, apoptosis, metastasis and tumour invasion and the phenotype of cancer cells. Virtually every cell type and cancer has a specific miRNA expression pattern. This unique miRNA expression pattern allows the classification of specific cancer types and often gives prognostic information. Profiling based on miRNAs may be more specific and robust than profiling based on mRNAs. MiRNAs can be studied in virtually all tissues including plasma. More work is required, but miRNAs have already improved our understanding of the pathogenesis of cancer and tumour progression and appear promising as novel diagnostic biomarkers. Finally, they may be of value in the development of new genetic treatments.

Key Concepts

  • MicroRNAs regulate gene expression.
  • MicroRNAs are important in the pathogenesis and progression of human cancers.
  • MicroRNAs can function as tumour suppressors and as tumour promoters (oncomirs).
  • Cancers of different origin have specific microRNA expression patterns, allowing molecular characterisation.
  • MicroRNAs can serve as biomarkers for cancer and may become useful for the treatment of cancer.
  • MicroRNA analysis may give prognostic information and be of use in subtyping histologically similar tumours into less and more clinically aggressive categories.
  • Exosomes contain microRNAs and processing enzymes and mediate some of the biological effects of microRNAs.

Keywords: microRNAs; noncoding RNAs; gene profiling; cancer; leukaemia; malignancy; exosomes

Figure 1. Biogenesis and functions of miRNAs (for details see text).
Figure 2. Methods used to study miRNAs (for details see Calin and Croce, and Ferdin et al., ).


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Further Reading

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Tuna M, Machado AS and Calin GA (2016) Genetic and epigenetic alterations of microRNAs and implications for human cancers and other diseases. Genes, Chromosomes and Cancer 55: 193–214.

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Munker, Reinhold, Shackelford, Rodney, and Calin, George A(Aug 2016) MicroRNAs in Cancer. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023161.pub2]