Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
It’s always best to diagnose cancer at an early stage when treatment is most likely to succeed. Unfortunately, far too many cancers are still detected only after cancer cells have escaped from a primary tumor and spread to distant parts of the body. This explains why there’s been so much effort in recent years to develop liquid biopsies, which are tests that can pick up on circulating cancer cells or molecular signs of cancer in blood or other bodily fluids and reliably trace them back to the organ in which a potentially life-threatening tumor is growing.
Earlier methods to develop liquid biopsies for detecting cancers often have relied on the presence of cancer-related proteins and/or DNA in the bloodstream. Now, an NIH-supported research team has encouraging evidence to suggest that this general approach to detecting cancers—including aggressive pancreatic cancers—may work even better by taking advantage of signals from a lesser-known form of genetic material called noncoding RNA.
The findings reported in Nature Biomedical Engineering suggest that the new liquid biopsy approach may aid in the diagnosis of many forms of cancer . The studies show that the sensitivity of the tests varies—a highly sensitive test is one that rarely misses cases of disease. However, they already have evidence that millions of circulating RNA molecules may hold promise for detecting cancers of the liver, esophagus, colon, stomach, and lung.
How does it work? The human genome contains about 3 billion paired DNA letters. Most of those letters are transcribed, or copied, into single-stranded RNA molecules. While RNA is best known for encoding proteins that do the work of the cell, most RNA never gets translated into proteins at all. This noncoding RNA includes repetitive RNA that can be transcribed from millions of repeat elements—patterns of the same few DNA letters occurring multiple times in the genome.
Common approaches to studying RNA don’t analyze repetitive RNA, so its usefulness as a diagnostic tool has been unclear—until recently. Last year, the lab of Daniel Kim at the University of California, Santa Cruz reported  that a key genetic mutation that occurs early on in some cancers causes repetitive RNA molecules to be secreted in large quantities from cancer cells, even at the earliest stages of cancer. Non-cancerous cells, by comparison, release much less repetitive RNA.
The findings suggested that liquid biopsy tests that look for this repetitive, noncoding RNA might offer a powerful new way to detect cancers sooner, according to the authors. But first they needed a method capable of measuring it. Due to its oftentimes uncertain functions, the researchers have referred to repetitive, noncoding RNA as “dark matter.”
Using a liquid biopsy platform they developed called COMPLETE-seq, Kim’s team trained computers to detect cancers by looking for patterns in RNA data. The platform enables sequencing and analysis of all protein coding and noncoding RNAs—including any RNA from more than 5 million repeat elements—present in a blood sample. They found that their classifiers worked better when repetitive RNAs were included. The findings lend support to the idea that repetitive, noncoding RNA in the bloodstream is a rich source of information for detecting cancers, which has previously been overlooked.
In a study comparing blood samples from healthy people to those with pancreatic cancer, the COMPLETE-seq technology showed that nearly all people in the study with pancreatic cancer had more repetitive, noncoding RNA in their blood samples compared to healthy people, according to the researchers. They used the COMPLETE-seq test on blood samples from people with other types of cancer as well. For example, their test accurately detected 91% of colorectal cancer samples and 93% of lung cancer samples.
They now plan to look at many more cancer types with samples from additional patients representing a broad range of cancer stages. The goal is to develop a single RNA liquid biopsy test that could detect multiple forms of cancer with a high degree of accuracy and specificity. They note that such a test might also be used to guide treatment decisions and more readily detect a cancer’s recurrence. The hope is that one day a comprehensive liquid biopsy test including coding and noncoding RNA will catch many more cancers sooner, when treatment can be most successful.
 RE Reggiardo et al. Profiling of repetitive RNA sequences in the blood plasma of patients with cancer. Nature Biomedical Engineering DOI: 10.1038/s41551-023-01081-7 (2023).
 RE Reggiardo et al. Mutant KRAS regulates transposable element RNA and innate immunity via KRAB zinc-finger genes. Cell Reports DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2022.111104 (2022).
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases