The National Institutes of Health announced this week a funding opportunity for research projects investigating microRNAs and other non-coding RNA as targets for cancer detection and prevention.
Specifically, the National Cancer Institute-sponsored program will finance research studying the role of miRNAs and ncRNAs in pre-neoplastic lesions and their potential utility in predicting progression to cancer. Also eligible for funding are projects determining whether small RNAs obtained from body fluids can be used for early cancer detection.
The program announcement comes a few weeks after the NIH said it had begun accepting Small Business Innovation Research grant applications for projects focused on developing new technologies or improving existing technologies for isolating and characterizing proteins, peptides, or miRNAs that exist in "complex biologically relevant mixtures at concentrations below the lower limits of current technologies."
The NIH said that the total amounts available for both projects will be contingent upon the availability of funding and the merit of applications received.
ncRNAs and Cancer
"The ability to accurately predict which pre-cancerous lesions are likely to progress into metastatic tumors would improve patient outcomes and survival, reduce patient discomfort, and reduce costs," according the NIH. "Distinguishing benign diseases and certain non-pre-cancerous lesions from pre-cancerous lesions can also aid in effective intervention, prevention, and treatment."
As such, there exists an "unmet need to develop methods to non-invasively and accurately detect cancers at their early stages of development and to accurately predict which pre-cancerous lesions are likely to progress to cancer," the agency added.
Conserved ncRNAs represent a class of promising cancer biomarkers, having been found to have distinct signatures in human leukemias and carcinomas, the NIH said. Additionally, the expression of individual miRNAs and miRNA signatures have been linked to numerous cancers including prostate, testicular, lung, breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and gastric cancers.
Few studies, however, have examined miRNAs in preneoplasias or the ability to use the small RNAs to predict progression from preneoplasia to cancer, it noted. Yet several properties of ncRNAs suggest that they may be useful in early cancer detection and prognosis including the up- or down-regulation of miRNAs in tumors and their ability to act as both tumor suppressors and oncogenes.
In line with its strategic plan to "continue the discovery into the genetic, molecular, and cellular determinants of cancer susceptibility, and initiate and support studies to better understand risk reduction, prevention, early detection, diagnosis, and treatment," the NCI has issued today's call for research project proposals focused on discovering and characterizing ncRNAs in preneoplasias and early-stage cancers in order to improve early detection, intervention, and prevention; predict risk of progression from preneoplasias to cancer; and distinguish benign lesions from pre-cancerous ones, the institute said.
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Areas of particular interest to the NCI include the discovery and characterization of ncRNAs in pre-cancerous lesions and early-stage cancers, as well as in the development of tumor-initiating stem cells; the comparison of ncRNAs in pre-cancerous lesions to progress to cancer with those in pre-cancerous lesions that do not progress; and the determination of the usefulness of tumor- and body fluid-derived ncRNAs in developing assays for early disease detection.
Also of interest are projects determining the sensitivity and specificity of ncRNAs or ncRNA profiles using specimens from completed trials; the discovery and characterization of viral ncRNAs and the evaluation of their utility as biomarkers for cancers of viral etiology; and the determination of ncRNAs as potential molecular targets influenced by dietary interventions.
"There have been significant improvements in technologies that enable the isolation, quantification, and characterization of … biomolecules in complex mixtures," the NIH said. And while existing technologies tend to be "robust in the case of the separation and characterization of the major components of biological mixtures … the low-abundance components are often lost in the process and/or are not analyzed."
As such, the NCI and the National Institute of Mental Health are jointly sponsoring a funding opportunity for small businesses developing novel technologies that can be used by the general research community to capture, detect, isolate, or characterize low-abundance proteins, peptides, and/or miRNAs in complex mixtures.
Funded projects will focus on technologies that will "ultimately facilitate research on the roles of specific low-abundance biomolecules in cancer development [and] progression and/or the response to treatments." Also of interest are projects developing technologies to detect and characterize proteins, peptides, and miRNAs from and in brain tissue, the NIH added.
Examples of technologies that will be considered for funding include, but are not limited to, array technologies, chromatography hardware and/or methodologies, imaging technologies, and chemical modifications.
The NIH noted that this funding opportunity is not intended to support the development of technologies related to data mining, drug discover, drug packaging and delivery, whole-body imaging, and correlative investigations or discovery research that are not explicitly applicable to the determinations of cancer-relevant or brain-relevant low-abundance biomolecules.
Additional details about the funding opportunity, which began on May 19, can be found here.