In understanding non-coding RNAs, an avenue of attack for leukemia

There’s RNA that codes for protein production, and then there’s “non-coding” RNA, which remains a bit of a mystery.

In a paper published this month, Whitehead Institute researchers led by Member Harvey Lodish have shed light on this mystery by showing that long non-coding RNAs, or lncRNAs, regulate a vital biological process called apoptosis (programmed cell death) during red blood cell production. Their findings also suggest that this particular lncRNA may be implicated in leukemia, cancer of the blood or bone barrow.

Dr. Wenqian Hu

Dr. Wenqian Hu, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvey Lodish's lab and the first author of this publication. Photo credit: Mark Bushy

“Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is very important, particularly in the hematopoietic (blood forming) system, where inhibition of cell death leads to leukemias,” says Whitehead Institute Founding Member Harvey Lodish. “We know a lot about the genes and proteins that regulate apoptosis, but this is the first example of a non-coding RNA that plays a role in blood cells. We would not be surprised to find this lncRNA or others like it upregulated in cancers.”

Further research will examine this lncRNA’s function in normal and diseased human cells in an effort to determine whether it plays a role in tumor development and growth. If this lncRNA is indeed associated with cancer cell-survival, it may represent a new avenue of attack for therapeutics.

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