ChristianaCare research may result in 'more precise' advanced colorectal cancer treatment

Advanced colorectal cancer is difficult to treat, but a discovery at ChristianaCare's Cawley Center for Translational Cancer Research could lead to a "more precise" treatment.

Scientists discovered that "microRNA (miRNA) expression leads to a diversity of cancer stem cells within a colorectal cancer tumor," noting the lack of uniformity of these cancer stem cells could be an explanation for why advanced colorectal cancer is difficult to treat, according to an April 4 news release from the Newark, Del.-based health system. 

The results were published March 29 in the Journal of Stem Cell Research and Therapy.

"Our research shows — at least in the laboratory — that there are different subpopulations of cancer stem cells in a tumor, and they may be driving the growth of the cancer," said Bruce Boman, MD, PhD, principal research investigator and medical director of cancer genetics and stem cell biology at the Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and Research Institute. "In one subpopulation of cancer stem cells, its miRNA will shut down the stem cell genes that are expressed in another subpopulation, and vice versa, within the same tumor."

Researchers studied the composition of cancer stem cells within a colorectal cancer cell line, evaluating the various cancer stem cell subpopulations. They learned that "miRNA expression could inhibit the expression of messenger RNA (mRNA), which carries instructions from the DNA to encode specific proteins within cells. Therefore, miRNA, by controlling gene expression, dictate which proteins are contained in the stem cells," according to the release.

This discovery shows that "differential miRNA expression leads to cancer stem cell heterogeneity within colorectal tumor tissue."

Dr. Boman said this is "early research" that requires more lab experiments, noting it has "clear relevance to the clinic."

The next step, he said, is to find out if miRNA can be targeted to make cancer more sensitive to certain treatments. "We know what the current anti-cancer treatments are targeting [and] we may be able to modulate or manipulate the cancer, so it becomes more sensitive to the treatment."

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