MicroRNAs in urine could prove to be promising biomarkers in clinical laboratory tests designed to diagnose brain tumors regardless of the tumor’s size or malignancy, paving the way for early detection and treatment
Researchers at Nagoya University in Japan have developed a liquid biopsy test for brain cancer screening that, they claim, can identify brain tumors in patients with 100% sensitivity and 97% specificity, regardless of the tumor’s size or malignancy. Pathologists will be interested to learn that the research team developing this technology says it is simple and inexpensive enough to make it feasible for use in mass screening for brain tumors.
Neurologists, anatomic pathologists, and histopathologists know that brain tumors are one of the most challenging cancers to diagnose. This is partly due to the invasive nature of biopsying tissue in the brain. It’s also because—until recently—clinical laboratory tests based on liquid blood or urine biopsies were in the earliest stages of study and research and are still in development.
Thus, a non-invasive urine test with this level of accuracy that achieves clinical status would be a boon for the diagnosis of brain cancer.
Researchers at Japan’s Nagoya University believe they have developed just such a liquid biopsy test. In a recent study, they showed that microRNAs (tiny molecules of nucleic acid) in urine could be a promising biomarker for diagnosing brain tumors. Their novel microRNA-based liquid biopsy correctly identified 100% of patients with brain tumors.
Well-fitted for Mass Screenings of Brain Cancer Patients
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), brain and other central nervous system (CNS) cancers represent 1.3% of all new cancer cases and have a five-year survival rate of only 32.6%.
In their published study, the Nagoya University scientists wrote, “There are no accurate mass screening methods for early detection of central nervous system (CNS) tumors. Recently, liquid biopsy has received a lot of attention for less-invasive cancer screening. Unlike other cancers, CNS tumors require efforts to find biomarkers due to the blood–brain barrier, which restricts molecular exchange between the parenchyma and blood.
“Additionally, because a satisfactory way to collect urinary biomarkers is lacking, urine-based liquid biopsy has not been fully investigated despite the fact that it has some advantages compared to blood or cerebrospinal fluid-based biopsy.
“Here, we have developed a mass-producible and sterilizable nanowire-based device that can extract urinary microRNAs efficiently. … Our findings demonstrate that urinary microRNAs extracted with the nanowire device offer a well-fitted strategy for mass screening of CNS tumors.”
The Nagoya University researchers focused on microRNA in urine as a biomarker for brain tumors because “urine can be collected easily without putting a burden on the human body,” said Atsushi Natsume, MD, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Nagoya University and a corresponding author of the study, in a news release.
A total of 119 urine and tumor samples were collected from patients admitted to 14 hospitals in Japan with CNS cancers between March 2017 and July 2020. The researchers used 100 urine samples from people without cancer to serve as a control for their test.
To extract the microRNA from the urine and acquire gene expression profiles, the research team designed an assembly-type microfluidic nanowire device using nanowire scaffolds containing 100 million zinc oxide nanowires. According to the scientists, the device can be sterilized and mass-produced, making it suitable for medical use. The instrument can extract a significantly greater variety and quantity of microRNAs from only a milliliter of urine compared to traditional methods, such as ultracentrifugation, the news release explained.
Simple Liquid-biopsy Test Could Save Thousands of Lives Each Year
While further studies and clinical trials will be necessary to affirm the noninvasive test’s accuracy, the Nagoya University researchers believe that, with the inclusion of additional technologies, a urine-based microRNA test could become a reliable biomarker for detecting brain tumors.
“In the future, by a combination of artificial intelligence and telemedicine, people will be able to know the presence of cancer, whereas doctors will be able to know the status of cancer patients just with a small amount of their daily urine,” Natsume said in the news release.
Biomarkers found in urine or blood samples that provide clinical laboratories with a simple, non-invasive procedure for early diagnosis of brain tumors could greatly increase the five-year survival rate for thousands of patients diagnosed with brain cancer each year. Such diagnostic technologies are also appropriate for hospitals and physicians interested in advancing patient-centered care.
Using animal blood, the researchers hope to improve the accuracy of AI driven diagnostic technology
What does a cheetah, a tortoise, and a Humboldt penguin have
in common? They are zoo animals helping scientists at Saarland University in
Saarbrücken, Germany, find biomarkers that can help computer-assisted diagnoses
of diseases in humans at early stages. And they are not the only animals
lending a paw or claw.
In their initial research, the scientists used blood samples
that had been collected during routine examinations of 21 zoo animals between
2016 and 2018, said a news
release. The team of bioinformatics
and human genetics experts
worked with German zoos Saarbrücken and Neunkircher for the study. The project
progresses, and thus far, they’ve studied the blood of 40 zoo animals, the
This research work may eventually add useful biomarkers and
assays that clinical
laboratories can use to support physicians as they diagnose patients,
select appropriate therapies, and monitor the progress of their patients. As medical
laboratory scientists know, for many decades, the animal kingdom has been
the source of useful insights and biological materials that have been
incorporated into laboratory assays.
“Measuring the molecular blood profiles of animals has never
been done before this way,” said Andreas
Keller, PhD, Saarland University Bioinformatics Professor and Chair for
Clinical Bioinformatics, in the news release. The Saarland researchers published
their findings in Nucleic Acids
Research, an Oxford
“Studies on sncRNAs [small non-coding RNAs] are often largely based on homology-based information, relying on genomic sequence similarity and excluding actual expression data. To obtain information on sncRNA expression (including miRNAs, snoRNAs, YRNAs and tRNAs), we performed low-input-volume next-generation sequencing of 500 pg of RNA from 21 animals at two German zoological gardens,” the article states.
Can Animals Improve the Accuracy of AI to Detect Disease
However, the researchers perceived an inability for AI and machine learning to
discern real biomarker patterns from those that just seemed to fit.
“The machine learning methods recognize the typical
patterns, for example for a lung tumor or Alzheimer’s disease. However, it is
difficult for artificial intelligence to learn which biomarker patterns are
real and which only seem to fit the respective clinical picture. This is where
the blood samples of the animals come into play,” Keller states in the news
“If a biomarker is evolutionarily conserved, i.e. also
occurs in other species in similar form and function, it is much more likely
that it is a resilient biomarker,” Keller explained. “The new findings are now
being incorporated into our computer models and will help us to identify the
correct biomarkers even more precisely in the future.”
“Because blood can be obtained in a standardized manner and
miRNA expression patterns are technically very stable, it is easy to accurately
compare expression between different animal species. In particular, dried blood
spots or microsampling devices appear to be well suited as containers for
miRNAs,” the researchers wrote in Nucleic Acids Research.
Animal species that participated in the study include:
Additionally, human volunteers contributed blood specimens
for a total of 19 species studied. The scientists reported success in capturing
data from all of the species. They are integrating the information into their
computer models and have developed a public database of their
findings for future research.
“With our study, we provide a large collection of small RNA
NGS expression data of species that have not been analyzed before in great
detail. We created a comprehensive publicly available online resource for
researchers in the field to facilitate the assessment of evolutionarily
conserved small RNA sequences,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
Clinical Laboratory Research and Zoos: A Future
This novel involvement of zoo animals in research aimed at improving
the ability of AI driven diagnostics to isolate and identify human disease is
notable and worth watching. It is obviously pioneering work and needs much
additional research. At the same time, these findings give evidence that there
is useful information to be extracted from a wide range of unlikely sources—in
this case, zoo animals.
Also, the use of artificial intelligence to search for
useful patterns in the data is a notable part of what these researchers
discovered. It is also notable that this research is focused on sequencing DNA
and RNA of the animals involved with the goal of identifying sequences that are
common across several species, thus demonstrating the common, important
functions they serve.
In coming years, those clinical laboratories doing genetic
testing in support of patient care may be incorporating some of this research
group’s findings into their interpretation of certain gene sequences.
Identifying patients who will likely develop prolonged concussion symptoms could lead to new clinical laboratory tests and personalized medicine treatments
Researchers are homing in on a new diagnostic assay for concussion that could potentially generate significant numbers of test referrals to the nation’s clinical laboratories. This innovative work is targeting how concussions are diagnosed and treated.
Each year, thousands of children receive sports-related injuries, including concussions. There are ways for anatomic pathologists and hospital medical laboratories to diagnose concussions; however, testing can be invasive and doesn’t always reveal a complete picture of the injury state.
Additionally, about one third of children with concussions develop prolonged symptoms. However, when prescribing treatment plans, physicians have been unable to predict which patients are likely to recover quickly versus those who will have a longer recovery.
Now, researchers at Penn State College of Medicine (Penn State) believe they have discovered five microRNAs in saliva that could be used to identify patients who will likely experience prolonged concussion symptoms even one month after the initial injury.
The study also found that certain materials in saliva can help diagnose the severity of concussions and could hold the key to more effective clinical laboratory tests and personalized medicine treatments.
The Penn State researchers published their study results in JAMA Pediatrics, a publication of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Concussion Leading Sports-related Brain Injury
There are approximately 3.8 million sports and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries in the United States each year and the majority of those cases are concussions, according to The Concussion Place. Most concussions treated in emergency rooms are due to falls, motor-vehicle related injuries, being struck by an object, assaults, or playing sports.
Also known as mild traumatic brain injuries (mTBI), concussions are caused by blows or jolts to the head or body that cause the brain to move with excessive force inside the skull. The sudden impact damages brain cells and causes chemical changes within the brain that alter normal functioning. Though usually not life threatening, the damage can be serious and linger for months.
Symptoms of concussion include: headaches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, balance problems, confusion, memory problems, sleep disturbances, and double or blurry vision. Symptoms usually occur immediately, but could take days or even weeks to appear.
Identifying Severity/Predicting Prolonged Symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injuries
After a concussion occurs, brain cells release small fragments of genetic material known as microRNAs while they attempt to repair themselves. A portion of these microRNAs appear in the injured person’s blood and saliva.
In order to determine whether these microRNAs could be used to determine the severity of a traumatic brain injury and predict whether prolonged symptoms would occur, the prospective cohort study researchers gathered saliva samples from 52 concussion patients between the ages of seven and 21:
The average age of the subjects was 14;
Twenty-two of the participants were female;
They were all athletes; and,
The majority of the samples were collected one to two weeks after the initial injury.
The researchers examined distinct microRNAs in the samples and identified some that enabled them to predict how long a patient’s concussion symptoms might last. In addition, they found one microRNA in children and young adults that accurately predicted which subjects would experience memory and problem-solving difficulties as part of their symptomatology.
The researchers also evaluated the concussion patients using the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool (SCAT-3), Third Edition. Physicians use this questionnaire to assess the symptoms and severity of concussions. The researchers also asked the parents of the concussed patients for observations about their children’s symptoms.
During follow up visits, which occurred at four- and eight-week increments following the original assessment, the Penn State researchers collected additional saliva samples and re-evaluated the patients using SCAT-3.
New Biomarkers Based on MicroRNAs Instead of Protein
“There’s been a big push recently to find more objective markers that a concussion has occurred, instead of relying simply on patient surveys,” Steven Hicks, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pa., one of the study researchers, told Penn State News.
“Previous research has focused on proteins, but this approach is limited because proteins have a hard time crossing the blood-brain barrier. What’s novel about this study is we looked at microRNAs instead of proteins, and we decided to look in saliva rather than blood,” he noted.
According to Steven Hicks, MD, PhD (above), who worked on the Penn State College of Medicine study, microRNAs could be more accurate than the traditional questionnaire when diagnosing and forecasting the effects of concussions. “The microRNAs were able to predict whether symptoms would last beyond four weeks with about 85% accuracy,” he told Penn State News. “In comparison, using the SCAT-3 report of symptoms alone is about 64% accurate. If you just go off the parent’s report of symptoms, it goes down to the mid-50s. In this pilot study, these molecular signatures are outperforming survey tools.” (Photo copyright: MD Magazine.)
The goal of this research was to develop a way to definitively ascertain that a concussion had occurred, predict the length and type of symptoms, and then use that data to improve and personalize care for children and young adults who have had a concussion.
“With that knowledge physicians could make more informed decisions about how long to hold a child out of sports, whether starting more aggressive medication regimens might be warranted, or whether involving a concussion specialist might be appropriate,” Hicks told MD Magazine. “Anytime we can use accurate, objective measures to guide medical care, I think that represents an opportunity to improve concussion treatment.”
Further research and clinical trials will be needed to solidify the effectiveness and accuracy of these new biomarkers. However, a rapid, non-invasive saliva test that can determine the severity of a concussion, and predicted whether prolonged symptoms will likely occur, would be widely used and could be an important assay for clinical laboratories. Particularly those associated with hospital medical laboratories and emergency rooms.
Now, researchers at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital have determined that microRNA in saliva could be used as biomarkers in point-of-care concussion testing during sports events, according to a Penn State Health news release. Such sideline saliva analyses could provide quick feedback to field doctors on whether a head injury is serious enough to put injured athletes out of play, and how long the effects of such injuries might last. But is it accurate?
Jeremiah J. Johnson, MA, BS, Department of Pediatrics, at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Pa., et al, recently published a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics that evaluated the ability of salivary microRNA to identify concussion in children. The salivary test of microRNA levels, Johnson and colleagues argued, does accurately identify the “duration and character of concussion symptoms.” According to the researchers, the test demonstrated high prognostic potential as a “toolset for facilitating concussion management” and may provide an additional biomarker source for use in clinical laboratory testing.
MicroRNA Offers New Biomarkers for Concussion Diagnosis
The study tested the saliva of 52 adolescents with a clinical diagnosis of mild traumatic brain injury in the form of concussion for specific microRNA expressions. Researchers identified five microRNA molecules which “accurately identify” patients with concussion symptoms. Three of those molecules served to diagnose specific symptoms of headache, fatigue, and memory difficulties up to one month after injury with low false detection rates. Because these microRNA molecules are not specific to children, could the test maintain diagnostic accuracy for patients of all ages?
Meehan and Mannix also remarked on the speed and relative ease of obtaining saliva samples, stating that “salivary microRNAs could also offer insights into the underlying biological mechanisms of injuries, potentially identifying specific targets to modify disease.”
More Accurate than Current Concussion Diagnosis Tools
There has been a marked interest in microRNA analysis and testing in recent years. MicroRNA analysis and testing has found use in cancer prognosis and personalized medicine that help predict responses to specific treatments for individual patients with a variety of chronic diseases. The news that microRNA can be used to predict concussion and duration of symptoms further solidifies the role microRNA may play in medical laboratory testing in the near future.
In an interview with CNN, Steve Hicks, MD, PhD, senior author of the JAMA Pediatrics research article and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine, reported that the salivary microRNA test predicted concussion with 85% accuracy in comparison to current clinical survey measures, which are “approximately 65% accurate.” Hicks added that “the technology required to measure saliva RNA is already employed in medicine” as a common means of testing for upper respiratory viruses and that “modifying this approach for patients with concussions could potentially provide a rapid, objective tool for managing brain injury.”
Currently the Standard Concussion Assessment Tool, Third Edition (SCAT 3), which includes a series of cognitive and physical tests, is used on sports sidelines to detect concussion symptoms. Hicks notes that one problem with SCAT 3 is that “an athlete may have a concussion even if [his or her] score is ‘normal.’” Therefore, the microRNA saliva test could provide objective evidence of concussion in patients SCAT 3 fails to accurately diagnose.
Steven D. Hicks, MD, PhD (above), led the research team that studied the use of microRNA in saliva, rather than in blood, as a biomarker to identify concussions symptoms in children, and determine how long effects of the injury might last. (Photo copyright: Penn State Health.)
Too Early to Know How Helpful the Test May Be?
In the same CNN interview, Neurologist Jeffery Kutcher, MD, head of the Sports Neurology Clinic at The Core Institute in Brighton, Mich., stated that the Penn State study’s findings were “promising” and that “work like this is important because it does provide potential for tests that can be helpful in the clinical setting.” Kutcher cautioned however, that it was “too early to know what this type of tool can do for us.”
In an NPR article, Manish Bhomia, M.Eng., PhD, a brain injury researcher with the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences commented that “a saliva test could greatly improve care for young people who don’t have obvious symptoms of a concussion.” Bhomia stated that “micro-RNAs offer a promising way to assess concussions in adults as well as children,” but he is wary to laud saliva tests as the best method of measuring relevant microRNA molecules. Bhomia states that blood samples “which tend to contain greater numbers of the genetic fragments” are perhaps a better option.
Hicks disagrees. In an article from Penn State News, Hicks stated that the novel aspect of this study was that it focused on microRNA levels “in saliva rather than blood.” Thus, a test based on saliva, rather than a phlebotomy stick or more invasive blood testing, requires no need for venous blood.
“The ultimate goal is to be able to objectively identify that a concussion has happened and then predict how long the symptoms will go on for,” Hicks noted in the Penn State News article. “Then, we can use that knowledge to improve the care that we provide for children who have concussions, either by starting medicine earlier or holding them out of activities for longer.”
Quadrant Biosciences, a biotech company in Syracuse, N.Y., that helped fund the study, is hoping to “bring a saliva test for concussion to market in the next 12 to 24 months,” according to Hicks in his CNN interview. If development proceeds as planned, the saliva test could prove a “game changer” for sports medicine diagnostics and possibly open new avenues for related microRNA in clinical laboratory testing.
New public database gives clinical laboratory researchers a single, searchable source for non-coding RNA data, thus aiding development of new diagnostic assays
Clinical laboratories involved in next-generation gene sequencing have a new single searchable database for RNA. Experts say that this database should help research and development of medical laboratory tests for clinical purposes.
The launch of RNAcentral now provides RNA biologists and other researchers with an open resource that offers integrated access to a comprehensive, up-to-date set of non-coding RNA sequences. This is a first step to building a repository of information for non-coding RNAs that is similar to the Universal Protein Resource (UniProt) database for proteins.