Modulation of miRNA activity in human cancer: a new paradigm for cancer gene therapy?

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MicroRNAs (miRNAs) were discovered more than a decade ago as noncoding, single-stranded small RNAs (∼22 nucleotides) that control the timed gene expression pattern in Caenorhabditis elegans life cycle. A number of these evolutionarily conserved, endogenous miRNAs have been shown to regulate mammalian cell growth, differentiation and apoptosis. miRNAs are multispecific by nature. The individual miRNA is capable of modulating the expression of a network of mRNAs that it binds by imperfect sequence complementarity. Human cancers commonly exhibit an altered expression profile of miRNAs with oncogenic (miR-21, miR-106a and miR-155) or tumor-suppressive (let-7, miR-15a/16, miR-34a and miR-143/145) activity. As consistent with the natural function of miRNAs in specifying cellular phenotype, miRNA-based cancer gene therapy offers the theoretical appeal of targeting multiple gene networks that are controlled by a single, aberrantly expressed miRNA. Reconstitution of tumor-suppressive miRNA, or sequence-specific knockdown of oncogenic miRNAs by 'antagomirs,' has produced favorable antitumor outcomes in experimental models. We discuss pending issues that need to be resolved prior to the consideration of miRNA-based experimental cancer gene therapy. These include the need for definitive mRNA target validation, our incomplete understanding of rate-limiting cellular components that impact the efficiency of this posttranscriptional gene-silencing phenomenon, the possibility for nonspecific immune activation and the lack of a defined, optimal mode of delivery.

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