New research indicates long non-coding RNAs should be considered drug targets in cancer therapy

December 22, 2016

Researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine have published results that prove long non-coding ribonucleic acids, or lncRNAs, unique to primates and not well-conserved in evolution are contributing to both cell death and cell proliferation in human estrogen receptor positive breast cancer cells, a major win for human health in the new era of post-genomic therapeutics.

The related studies, led by the Wayne State University School of Medicine’s Leonard Lipovich, Ph.D., are contrary to decades of dogma in the cancer field asserting the primacy of conserved protein-coding genes as tumor suppressors and oncogenes.

“The speculative implication is that, perhaps, the cancer field’s tortuous history of failing to improve treatments and outcomes despite 15 years’ worth of post-genomic biology is due in part to the field’s outdated fixation on well-conserved proteins in cancer, and that other endogenous molecules regulating cell death and cell proliferation, such as primate-specific long non-coding RNAs, now ought to be considered as drug targets in cancer,” he said.

The study, “Primate-specific oestrogen-responsive lncRNAs regulate proliferation and viability of human breast cancer cells,” now available in the Royal Society journal Open Biology (, reports results from the ongoing work funded by Dr. Lipovich’s National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award from the National Cancer Institute.

Dr. Lipovich is an associate professor of the WSU Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics and of the Department of Neurology, and an investigator with the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. He won the coveted NIH Director’s Award in 2014, given to support exceptionally creative new investigators who propose highly innovative, high-risk projects that have the potential for unusually high impact.

The research was performed in collaboration with Professor of Surgery and of Oncology Mary Ann Kosir, M.D., who is also a KCI investigator, and University of Houston Assistant Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Chin-Yo Lin, Ph.D.

Long non-coding RNA is abundant in human cells. Long non-coding RNA genes often lack sequence conservation even between closely related species, in contrast to protein-coding genes, which are highly conserved across distant evolutionary lineages. Over the past several years, the Lipovich lab has been highlighting the primate-specificity of lncRNAs in diverse disease systems.

Prior to 2014, the work had been also supported by an American Cancer Society Institutional Research Grant provided to Dr. Lipovich through KCI.

Dr. Lipovich received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1998 and his doctorate from the University of Washington in 2003. He joined the School of Medicine faculty in 2007, working to build an internationally visible, high-profile research program.

For more information about supporting these ongoing research efforts, call the School of Medicine’s Office of Development and Alumni Affairs at 313-577-5929.

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