Newly identified patterns of microRNA (miRNA) in the blood of people with lung cancer may have the potential to reveal presence, aggressiveness, and possibly risk for the disease.

A group of investigators led by Carlo M. Croce, MD, has uncovered patterns of abnormal miRNAs in the plasma of people with lung cancer. The abnormal molecules were present in blood serum well before the tumors were detected by spiral CT scan, “suggesting that they might have strong predictive, diagnostic, and prognostic potential,” explained Croce in a statement issued by The Ohio State University (OSU) Medical Center to announce the findings. Croce is the director of the human cancer genetics program at The OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute in Columbus.

The research team collected tissue samples from 1,035 persons aged 50 years and older who had smoked at least a pack of cigarettes per day for 20 years or more. Each patient then had a CT scan every year for 5 years and provided blood, sputum, and urine samples.

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Croce and colleagues then analyzed 28 tumor samples and 24 samples of normal lung tissue, identifying miRNAs that could discriminate between the two types of tissue. Furthermore, the researchers found patterns of miRNAs that distinguished tumors with faster growth rates. These patterns correlated with poor disease-free survival.

The technique proved to identify 18 of 20 persons whose lung cancer was later detected by spiral CT.

“Our goal was to identify biomarkers that could predict tumor development and prognosis to improve lung cancer diagnosis and treatment,” Croce explained in the OSU statement. “Overall, these findings strengthen the observation that circulating miRNA in plasma is detectable well before clinical disease detection by spiral CT, indicating the possibility of identifying high-risk patients on the basis of miRNA profiling.”

The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2011;108[9]:3713-3718).