Ancient Enzyme Could Boost Power of Liquid Biopsies to Detect And Profile Cancers


Source: University of Texas at Austin

Summary: Researchers are developing a novel tool for a liquid biopsy which can provide doctors with an entire picture of an individual’s disease.


A set of medical tests called liquid biopsies are being developed by the researchers. Liquid biopsies are a simple and non-invasive alternative to surgical biopsies which can rapidly detect infectious diseases, cancers and other conditions just from a small blood sample. Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin are developing a novel tool for a liquid biopsy which can provide doctors with an entire picture of an individual’s disease. Professor Alan Lambowitz and his team are studying an ancient bacterial enzyme that can be used to detect bits of genetic material shed by cancer or other diseased cells into the bloodstream of a patient. The study findings were published in the journal Molecular Cell.

Improved Liquid Biopsies for detecting diseases

An ancient bacterial enzyme (grey) crawls along a tangled strand of RNA (orange), creating a complimentary strand of DNA (blue). Lambowitz and his team think this enzyme — called GsI-IIC RT and part of a group of enzymes known as TGIRTs — have novel properties that make it easier to detect RNA biomarkers from cancer and other disorders. Postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Stamos revealed for the first time the molecular structure of this enzyme. Credit: Jennifer Stamos/Univ. of Texas at Austin

In the current scenario, most of the liquid biopsies can detect DNA in blood and some can detect RNA, however, they tend to miss many important RNA biomarkers and misinterpret others. But this ancient bacterial enzyme can detect a full range of RNAs with high accuracy. Researchers even uncovered the molecular structure of this RNA-detecting enzyme and even about how it works, how it can be improved for use in medical tests. The ancient enzymes which the researchers are studying are called TGIRTs – thermostable group II intron reverse transcriptases. These TGIRTs find the strands of RNA and create complementary strands of DNA that encode the same information and can be sequenced to provide diagnostic information.

This improved new method can be an important tool for doctors to persecute the dream of precision medicine, or treatments designed according to individuals genetics and life histories and also the unique aspects of their diseases.

Prof. Alan Lambowitz said, “DNA biomarkers are static. They provide information about mutations that cause a disease, but they don’t provide information about the effect of these mutations on cellular processes, which can differ in different individuals” and further added “Monitoring cellular RNAs provides a snapshot of exactly what is happening in diseased tissue, such as a tumor, at a particular time.”


More Information: Jennifer L. Stamos et al, “Structure of a Thermostable Group II Intron Reverse Transcriptase with Template-Primer and Its Functional and Evolutionary Implications” Molecular Cell (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.molcel.2017.10.024


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