London: Researchers have identified an RNA molecule that helps cancer cells in growing opportunistically, offering scientists a new target for drug development.
The study showed that NEAT1, a non-coding RNA, plays an important role in the survival of highly dividing cells -- and in particular of cancer cells.
These findings can help develop new drugs that target NEAT1, in order to kill cancer cells more effectively.
As a non-coding RNA, NEAT1 is not translated into a protein. It does, however, contribute to the formation of so-called 'paraspeckles', subnuclear particles that can be found in the cell nuclei of cancer cells.
The function of these particles has remained obscure. Although highly conserved through evolution, NEAT1 appears to be dispensable for normal embryonic development and adult life as mice lacking the non-coding RNA are viable and healthy.
"In our study, we have found that the expression of NEAT1 in the cell nucleus is regulated by p53. This protein plays an important role in protecting people against cancer and is known as 'the guardian of the genome',” Carmen Adriaens, PhD student at Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
The researchers also found that NEAT1/paraspeckles are required for the survival of highly dividing cancer initiating cells and that mice lacking NEAT1 are protected from developing skin cancer.
This means that cancer cells can 'hijack' the survival principle of NEAT1 for their own good.
"We expected NEAT1 to be a tumor suppressor, since it is regulated by p53. Instead, it turned out that NEAT1 helps cancer cells in growing opportunistically,” Professor Jean-Christophe Marine from VIB-KU Leuven said.
"They use the survival mechanisms put in place by NEAT1 to survive standard chemotherapeutics. Our research shows that cancer cells die more effectively after removing NEAT1/paraspeckles from the cell nucleus. In other words: the loss of NEAT1 leads to increased chemosensitivity and cell death,” Marine explained.
The findings appeared in the journal Nature Medicine.
"Therefore, our findings can help develop new drugs targetting NEAT1 in order to kill cancer cells more effectively," Marine said.