New tech opens doors for cancer detection

A James Cook University researcher says the development of AI and other new technologies is enabling researchers to investigate easier and quicker tests for cancers using microRNAs.

Dr Ulf Schmitz is an Associate Professor in Bioinformatics at JCU’s Department of Molecular and Cell Biology. He said microRNAs are small molecules that play an important role in regulating gene expression.

“Since the early 2000s, microRNAs have been recognised as important and ubiquitous regulators of gene expression. Soon it became evident they have a role in human diseases including cancer.

“So, we have been exploring the potential of microRNAs as cancer biomarkers, as regulators of cancer genes and their role in immune cells,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said a key advantage of using microRNAs as biomarkers is that testing them is non-invasive.

“They can be detected in body fluids such as urine, saliva, or blood. This means we can perform repeated sampling, enabling not just the detection of tumours but also monitoring of cancer progression and the response to treatment,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said the field looks promising and relies on cutting-edge technology.

“This type of work has been made possible by the advances in computational approaches such as machine learning (AI) and systems biology – a field of study that focuses on understanding the complex interactions between different biological systems.”

Dr Schmitz has invited experts from around the globe to contribute chapters to a new book that describes the state of the art in microRNA/cancer research and the emerging subject of microRNAs, as well as written a chapter himself.

“We present computer models that can help to identify novel biomarkers, e.g. in circulating microRNAs, and tools that can help to design microRNA-based therapeutic interventions, along with an evaluation of the role of microRNAs in immunotherapy, immune responses and drug resistance,” said Dr Schmitz.

He said accurate diagnosis of cancer is a key element in enhancing the survival of cancer patients, and this is dependent upon the existence of reliable biomarkers and widely available testing approaches to detect them.

“Examination of tissue biopsies is still viewed as the gold standard for cancer diagnosis, but these can be costly, potentially hazardous, and require reliable assessment by specialist pathologists.

“As an alternative, liquid biopsies using microRNAs have the potential to enable screening programs and the monitoring of treatment effects and disease progression, providing a more tailored management of cancer.”

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