By sequencing cancer-cell genomes, scientists have discovered vast numbers of genes that are mutated, deleted or copied in cancer cells. This treasure trove is a boon for researchers seeking new drug targets, but it is nearly impossible to test them all in a timely fashion.

To help speed up the process, MIT researchers have developed RNA-delivering nanoparticles that allow for rapid screening of new drug targets in mice. In their first mouse study, done with researchers at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute, they showed that nanoparticles that target a protein known as ID4 can shrink ovarian tumors. 

Through Project Achilles, Hahn and his colleagues have been testing the functions of many of the genes disrupted in ovarian cancer cells. By revealing genes critical to cancer-cell survival, this approach has narrowed the list of potential targets to several dozen.

Typically, the next step in identifying a good drug target would be to genetically engineer a strain of mice that are missing (or overexpressing) the gene in question, to see how they respond when tumors develop. However, this normally takes two to four years. A much faster way to study these genes would be simply to turn them off after a tumor appears.

RNA interference (RNAi) offers a promising way to do that. During this naturally occurring phenomenon, short strands of RNA bind to the messenger RNA (mRNA) that delivers protein-building instructions from the cell’s nucleus to the rest of the cell. Once bound, the mRNA molecules are destroyed and their corresponding proteins never get made.

Researchers decided to focus on the ID4 protein because it is overexpressed in about a third of high-grade ovarian tumors (the most aggressive kind), but not in other cancer types. The gene, which codes for a transcription factor, appears to be involved in embryonic development: It gets shut down early in life, then somehow reactivates in ovarian tumors.

To target ID4, Bhatia and her students designed a new type of RNA-delivering nanoparticle. Their particles can both target and penetrate tumors, something that had never before been achieved with RNA interference.

Within the nanoparticles, strands of RNA are mixed with a protein that further helps them along their journey: When the particles enter a cell, they are encapsulated in membranes known as endosomes. The protein-RNA mixture can cross the endosomal membrane, allowing the particles to get into the cell’s main compartment and start breaking down mRNA.

The researchers are now using the particles to test other potential targets for ovarian cancer as well as other types of cancer, including pancreatic cancer. They are also looking into the possibility of developing the ID4-targeting particles as a treatment for ovarian cancer.

This story is reprinted from material from MIT, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.