One molecule may stand in the way of liver cancer

Loss of the tiny RNA molecule miR-122 in liver cells may be all that it takes to cause full-blown liver cancer, according to a new Ohio State University study in mice. Restoring it, in turn, could slow the progression of the disease, scientists believe.

Details are published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Researchers pursued their mouse study with a simple enough premise: Determining what happened when miR-122 was missing in liver cells of mice engineered to not have the molecule.

Sure enough, the livers developed fatty deposits. They became inflamed. Crucially, they also developed tumors that scientists said looked like hepatocellular carcinoma, the most common type of liver cancer. By the same token however, restoring miR-122 to almost normal levels (by injecting the gene into liver cells) led to a big drop in both the size and amount of tumors.

Lead researcher Kalpana Ghoshal said in a statement that the finding suggests miR-122 is important to tumor suppression, and could also help treat liver cancer in the context of miR-122 replacement. That's because the molecule mostly resides in liver cells and helps regulate cholesterol, among other functions. But patients with hepatocellular carcinoma often don't have the crucial microRNA molecule. The discovery is a number of years away from being tested in people, but the results in mice are generating optimism all the same. Liver cancer is particularly deadly and Big Pharma is actively pursuing drugs that can reverse its advance.

For the study, research used one strain of mice engineered to not have miR-122. Another strain was developed to over-express a particular cancer-causing gene. Those rodents received the miR-122 treatment, which reduced tumor size and number.

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