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Researchers at Tampere University develop new cancer medicines that target RNA structures

Published on 22.4.2024
Tampere University
Minna-Liisa Änkö works at her desk in the laboratory.
RNA has long been considered as a mere messenger that conveys genetic information from DNA to direct the synthesis of proteins in cells. In a new study led by Associate Professor (tenure track) Minna-Liisa Änkö, RNA takes the spotlight as an independent agent with the potential to transform precision cancer medicine.Photo: Jonne Renvall
Associate Professor (tenure track) Minna-Liisa Änkö leads a new research study that explores the dynamics of RNA folding in colon cancer. The study aims to discover whether new insights into the RNA structures that are typically found in cancer cells could pave the way for the development of new targeted cancer therapies. The study has received a €932,000 grant from the Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation.

Therapies based on ribonucleic acid (RNA) have been the subject of intense scientific interest in recent years. Covid-19 mRNA vaccines demonstrated the clinical utility of RNA-based therapeutics in regulating cellular processes.

In many types of cancer, the mechanisms for controlling cellular processes regulation are disrupted contributing to the development of a malignant tumour.

Biology textbooks often describe RNA as a linear string of nucleotides, but RNA looks very different inside a cell where it is folded into complex structures that regulate cellular processes.

Previous studies conducted by the research group led by Associate Professor of Molecular Biology (tenure track) Minna-Liisa Änkö have shown that RNA folding is altered in colon cancer cells due to RNA-protein interactions. These findings open up new avenues for cancer treatments in which RNA itself is either the therapeutic agent or the drug target.

Now the researchers want to discover whether it is possible to manipulate RNA folding in cancer cells.

“We are looking to determine what RNA molecules actually look like inside cells and find RNA structures that are only found in cancer cells. We are also developing pioneer molecules to test whether we can manipulate these RNA structures. This would allow us to make cancer cells healthier and thereby, for example, make intractable cancers sensitive to drugs again or ideally destroy cancer cells altogether,” Änkö says.

RNA therapies hold promise for treating a variety of diseases

While current treatments are effective against many types of cancer, certain subtypes of cancer are unresponsive to standard treatments and recurrent cancers can become resistant to treatment. For example, the prognosis for colon cancer turns grim if the tumour is not detected and surgically removed at an early stage. For patients with advanced colon cancer, palliative care may be the only option.

Änkö and her research group are working determinedly to find solutions for combating currently incurable cancers, in particular.

“Modern diagnostic methods are so advanced that it is possible to try to figure out what went wrong at the cellular level in individual patients. Advanced diagnostics and the adaptability of RNA-based drugs will enable the development of almost individually tailored treatments to patients. Drugs that target the RNA structures specific to cancer cells could also potentially do less damage on healthy cells, causing fewer side effects.”

If this novel approach for precision medicine proves effective against cancer, the concept could also be applied to treat a wide range of other diseases. As the new study will provide new insights into the intracellular structure of RNA, which yet remains poorly understood, the findings will significantly accelerate the development of all RNA-based drugs.

The Jane and Aatos Erkko Foundation has awarded €932,000 of funding for the four-year study scheduled to begin in September 2024.