Science & Technology

RNA emerges as diagnostic tool

By Santiago Carbone

Montevideo, May 11 (EFE).- With science in the headlines amid the Covid-19 pandemic, researchers around the world are looking at the possibility that a focus on extracellular RNA can offer a non-invasive alternative for early diagnosis of cancer and other serious illnesses.

One of those in the vanguard of the effort is Uruguayan molecular biologist Juan Pablo Tosar, who confesses to a long-standing fascination with RNA.

Scientists long thought that RNA, whose main function is turning genetic code (DNA) into specific instructions for assembling proteins, could be found only inside cells.

In fact, it travels throughout the body via the bloodstream and that discovery has given rise to the intensive study of extracellular RNA.

“This is not a job for a single person, or even a job for a research group. Researchers in various different groups are working on this long-term project, which is already many years old,” Tosar told Efe at the Pasteur Institute in Montevideo.

Public awareness of RNA has never been greater, as two of the vaccines developed to battle Covid-19 utilize messenger RNA (mRNA).

While Tosar, the head of the biochemistry department at Uruguay’s Universidad de la Republica, is pleased about RNA higher profile, he points to a downside in the form of “disinformation or an excess of information of variable quality.”

“Until very recently, when talking about the kind of scientific research we do, necessarily I had to start with an introduction explaining what RNA is and generally I had to talk about DNA,” he said.

The Uruguayan, who was featured last month in Nature magazine, said that just as people must communicate with each other to accomplish collective tasks, “cells have to coordinate actions and we believe that that dialogue, or part of that dialogue, occurs on the basis of these RNA molecules.”

And the presence of RNA in blood and urine can be harnessed for diagnostic purposes.

“We can sequence all of the RNA that is in that type (blood and urine) samples and determine if that RNA profile corresponds to a healthy person or a sick one,” Tosar said.

For people who undergo routine periodic blood tests, analysis of the RNA profile could serve as an early-warning system.

“That could permit making an earlier diagnosis of certain kinds of cancer and tumors that, in general, are detected very late,” Tosar said. “There is a great need to be able to count on a non-invasive or minimally invasive analysis that allows you to detect that type illness at an early stage.”

“That is what we call a liquid biopsy,” he added. “It’s an analysis of a sample extracted without having to go to the operating room, as it’s not a strategy used in symptomatic people, but in healthy people with the objective of preventing an illness or detecting it early. It is a revolution at the diagnostic level.”



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