Researchers at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (ONJCRI) have developed computing tools to investigate the activity of microRNAs – tiny strands of genetic material that play a key role in regulating cancer cell survival.

They have used the tools to demonstrate that one microRNA plays a key role in regulating the growth and movement of melanoma cells.

In creating the computer-based model, the researchers paved the way for the identification of other microRNAs that potentially pose suitable targets for a new generation of cancer therapeutics.

Most of us have heard of DNA and the ‘genetic code’ that makes every living thing unique, but equally as important is RNA. RNA is the ‘messenger’ molecule carrying genetic information stored in DNA out to the tiny factories within cells where this information is decoded and ‘translated’ into proteins.

MicroRNAs are very short strands of RNA that play a vital role interacting with their longer protein-coding ‘messenger RNA’ cousins, and fine-tuning the decoding process. Typically, microRNAs do this by binding to specific messenger RNA molecules, preventing them from being ‘readable’ by the protein-building machinery.

Tiny molecules, vital role in cancer cell survival

MicroRNA molecules have been found to be key regulators of cancer cell behaviour by altering the balance of pro- and anti-cancer protein formation. But cancer cells can take control of microRNAs, using them to support the production of a protein repertoire that fuels cancer cell survival. 

The interactions between the tens of thousands of microRNA and messenger RNA molecules that float around within any single cell are difficult to study. Until recently there were few tools to fathom this complexity and accurately predict which microRNAs interact with which messenger RNAs, and what this means.

Researchers in the Institute’s Cancer Immunobiology Program and the Systems Biology Laboratory at the University of Melbourne developed computing tools to identify novel potential interactions between these molecules and to then assess their functional significance. The methods work by simultaneously modelling the abundances of microRNAs with those of messenger RNAs, whilst taking into account functional read-outs of what the cancer cells are doing.

Tool may identify other new cancer targets

The researchers used the tools in 2016 to demonstrate that the microRNA miR-29b-3p played a key role in regulating the invasiveness of melanoma cells.

“We showed the methodology can be used to identify microRNAs and their target messenger RNAs that have direct relevance to cancer cell function, opening the door to investigating other microRNAs that could potentially be novel cancer therapeutic targets,” Dr Miles Andrews, ONJCRI Clinician Scientist says.