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Novel screening technique shows promise for neuroblastoma

Posted on Thursday, March 06, 2014 · Volume: XLVII · Issue: 5

Liqin Du, Ph.D., has developed a novel screening technique that will help scientists devise new targeted therapies for children with neuroblastoma.
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Liqin Du, Ph.D., has developed a novel screening technique that will help scientists devise new targeted therapies for children with neuroblastoma.clear graphic

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Contact: Elizabeth Allen,

SAN ANTONIO (Feb. 28, 2014) — Neuroblastoma, a cancer that forms in immature nerve cells, is one of the most common and lethal types of childhood cancer.

On Feb. 28, a researcher from the UT Health Science Center San Antonio published a paper in OncoTarget that shows the important role of microRNAs in regulating neuroblastoma development and points to new therapeutic possibilities.

Differentiation therapy
Neuroblastomas, which account for 15 percent of childhood cancer deaths, are formed when some cells do not differentiate and grow as they should. A promising type of therapy called differentiation therapy targets these malignant cells so that they can resume the process of maturing into different types of nerve cells.

Unlike conventional chemotherapies, this new approach to cancer therapy has fewer toxic side effects, and gives hope for a cancer treatment that is gentler on young bodies. So far, however, only a few differentiation agents have been successful in treating neuroblastoma, and more than half of the young patients treated with such agents see their cancer return.

New treatment focuses on microRNA
Researchers need better laboratory screening techniques to improve treatments, and now one has been developed by Liqin Du, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Cellular and Structural Biology. She and her team work at the Health Science Center's Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute.

MicroRNAs are small RNA molecules involved in gene expression that play an important role in cell development. Dr. Du's screening approach revealed several microRNA molecules that induce the process of cell differentiation, and those are key to developing new drugs.

Screening method needed to find new therapeutic agents
“Development of new agents for treating neuroblastoma has been greatly hampered by the lack of efficient high-throughput screening approaches,” Dr. Du said. “In our study, we applied a novel high-content screening approach that we recently developed to investigate the role of microRNAs in neuroblastoma differentiation.

“We identified a set of novel microRNAs that are potent inducers of neuroblastoma cell differentiation and found that synthetic analogs of some of the identified microRNAs (called MiRNA mimics) are much more potent in inducing neuroblastoma cell differentiation than the current differentiation treatments," she said.

“These synthetic analogs of microRNA are promising new drugs for neuroblastoma differentiation therapy,” Dr. Du said. “We look forward to investigating this further in the future.”


The Cancer Therapy & Research Center (CTRC) at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is one of the elite academic cancer centers in the country to be named a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated Cancer Center, and is one of only four in Texas. A leader in developing new drugs to treat cancer, the CTRC Institute for Drug Development (IDD) conducts one of the largest oncology Phase I clinical drug programs in the world, and participates in development of cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. For more information, visit www.ctrc.net.

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