Ground breaking research is under way towards a possible non-invasive early detection method for a cancer killing thousands of men annually.
Rated as the second most common cancer in men globally, prostate cancer follows a natural course, starting as a tiny group of cancer cells that could grow into mature tumours. In some men if Prostate Cancer (PC) is left untreated, it may spread and lead to death. In recent months researchers at the Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC) at the University of the Western Cape have made in-roads into this enduring research problem. Their research has focused on biomarker discovery for PC. In simple terms, these scientists are working at identifying a specific molecule that signals the presence of a silent killer.
Current diagnostic tools used by doctors include digital rectal examinations, biopsy and ultra sound. All of these methods are currently being used, but they share a major drawback. They are invasive.
This invasiveness may be the reason why many men are reluctant to get tested. Some methods also lack specificity and sensitivity.
It is this search for a less invasive, sensitive and specific early detection method for prostate cancer that drives this research. Molecular biomarkers have been found to be the most viable option to overcome these pitfalls. A molecular biomarker, according to the National Cancer Institute is classified as a biological molecule present in blood, bodily fluids or tissues that indicates disease. These molecules include DNA, RNA, proteins or MicroRNAs. While most people will be familiar with DNA or RNA, MicroRNAs or miRNA as scientists call them, needs a little explaining.
Nucleotides are the building blocks of the genetic code that is responsible for the outer appearance (what you look like) and inner functioning (how our bodies function) of all species that roam the earth. DNA and RNA consist of nucleotides.
The difference with MicroRNAs is that they are small non-coding RNA molecules, about 21–25 nucleotides in length. Scientists are only just beginning to understand their purpose and role in the human body.
They are however becoming increasingly recognized as powerful biomarkers for human disease such as cancers and heart disease. They contain an untapped wealth of information and remain stable in serum and plasma. Because of this scientists are rapidly developing an interest in using MicroRNAs in blood or urine as biomarkers of disease.
The research study is multifaceted and will harness the power of three different technologies. This includes bioinformatics (the study of biology with the aid of mathematical algorithms and computational power), molecular biology (the study of biological processes on the molecular level) and nanotechnology (designing tools using nano-particles).
As the field of MicroRNA nanotechnology research continues to grow, a deeper understanding of their expression, function and control in prostate cancer will influence the development of nanotechnology based diagnostics for the early detection of disease.
Writer: Firdous Khan