Open Access

Targeting oncomiRNAs and mimicking tumor suppressor miRNAs: Νew trends in the development of miRNA therapeutic strategies in oncology (Review)

  • Authors:
    • Roberto Gambari
    • Eleonora Brognara
    • Demetrios A. Spandidos
    • Enrica Fabbri
  • View Affiliations

  • Published online on: May 4, 2016     https://doi.org/10.3892/ijo.2016.3503
  • Pages:5-32
  • Copyright: © Gambari et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Abstract

MicroRNA (miRNA or miR) therapeutics in cancer are based on targeting or mimicking miRNAs involved in cancer onset, progression, angiogenesis, epithelial-mesenchymal transition and metastasis. Several studies conclusively have demonstrated that miRNAs are deeply involved in tumor onset and progression, either behaving as tumor-promoting miRNAs (oncomiRNAs and metastamiRNAs) or as tumor suppressor miRNAs. This review focuses on the most promising examples potentially leading to the development of anticancer, miRNA-based therapeutic protocols. The inhibition of miRNA activity can be readily achieved by the use of miRNA inhibitors and oligomers, including RNA, DNA and DNA analogues (miRNA antisense therapy), small molecule inhibitors, miRNA sponges or through miRNA masking. On the contrary, the enhancement of miRNA function (miRNA replacement therapy) can be achieved by the use of modified miRNA mimetics, such as plasmid or lentiviral vectors carrying miRNA sequences. Combination strategies have been recently developed based on the observation that i) the combined administration of different antagomiR molecules induces greater antitumor effects and ii) some anti-miR molecules can sensitize drug-resistant tumor cell lines to therapeutic drugs. In this review, we discuss two additional issues: i) the combination of miRNA replacement therapy with drug administration and ii) the combination of antagomiR and miRNA replacement therapy. One of the solid results emerging from different independent studies is that miRNA replacement therapy can enhance the antitumor effects of the antitumor drugs. The second important conclusion of the reviewed studies is that the combination of anti-miRNA and miRNA replacement strategies may lead to excellent results, in terms of antitumor effects.

Introduction

MicroRNAs (miRNAs or miRs) are a family of small (19–25 nucleotides in length) non-coding RNAs that have a key role in the regulation of gene expression through the inhibition or the reduction of protein synthesis following mRNA complementary sequence base pairing (14). A single or multiple mRNAs can be targeted at the 3′ untranslated region (3′UTR), coding sequence (CDS) or 5′ untranslated region (5′UTR) sequence, and it is calculated that >60% of human mRNAs are recognized by miRNAs (14). The miRNA/mRNA interaction occurs at the level of the RNA-induced silencing complex (RISC) and causes translational repression or mRNA degradation, depending on the degree of complementarity with target mRNA sequences (58). Since their discovery and first characterization, the number of human miRNAs identified and deposited in the miRBase databases (miRBase v.21, www.mirbase.org) has increaed (it is >2,500) (916) and the research studies on miRNAs have confirmed the very high complexity of the networks constituted by miRNAs and RNA targets (1722).

Alterations in miRNA expression have been demonstrated to be associated with different human pathologies, and guided alterations of specific miRNAs have been suggested as novel approaches for the development of innovative therapeutic protocols (23,24). Studies have conclusively demonstrated that miRNAs are deeply involved in tumor onset and progression, either behaving as tumor-promoting miRNAs (oncomiRNAs and metastamiRNAs) or as tumor suppressor miRNAs (25,26). In general, miRNAs able to promote cancer target mRNAs coding for tumor suppressor proteins, whereas miRNAs exhibiting tumor suppressor properties usually target mRNAs coding oncoproteins (see the scheme depicted in Fig. 1A). This has a very important implication in diagnosis and/or prognosis, including the recent discovery that the pattern of circulating cell-free miRNAs in serum allows us to perform molecular analyses on these non-invasive liquid biopsies with deep diagnostic and prognostic implications. This research field has confirmed that cancer-specific miRNAs are present in extracellular body fluids, and may play a very important role in the crosstalk between cancer cells and surrounding normal cells (2732).

Interestingly, the evidence of the presence of miRNAs in serum, plasma and saliva supports their potential as an additional set of biomarkers for cancer. The extracellular miRNAs are protected by exosome-like structures, small intraluminal vesicles shed from a variety of cells (including cancer cells), with a biogenesis connected with endosomal sorting complex required for transport machinery in multivesicular bodies (29). For instance, miR-141 and miR-221/222 are predicted biomarkers in liquid biopsies from patients with colon cancer (33,34).

On the other hand, tumor-associated miRNAs are suitable targets for intervention therapeutics, as previously reported (3544) and summarized in Fig. 1B. The inhibition of miRNA activity can be readily achieved by the use of miRNA inhibitors and oligomers, including RNA, DNA and DNA analogues (miRNA antisense therapy) (4547), small molecule inhibitors, locked nucleic acids (LNAs) (4853), peptide nucleic acids (PNAs) (5457), morpholinos (5860), miRNA sponges (6167), mowers (68) or through miRNA masking that inhibits miRNA function by masking the miRNA binding site of a target mRNA using a modified single-stranded RNA complementary to the target sequence (6975). On the contrary, the enhancement of miRNA function (miRNA replacement therapy) can be achieved by the use of modified miRNA mimetics, either synthetic, or produced by plasmid or lentiviral vectors carrying miRNA sequences (7681).

2. Tumor suppressor miRNAs

Several miRNAs exhibit onco-suppressor properties by targeting mRNAs coding oncoproteins (82105). Therefore, these onco-suppressor miRNAs have been found to be often downregulated in tumors. For instance, Fernandez et al (106) recently described the intriguing tumor suppressor activity of miR-340, showing the miR-340-mediated inhibition of multiple negative regulators of p27, a protein involved in apoptosis and cell cycle progression. These interactions with oncoprotein-coding mRNA targets determine the inhibition of cell cycle progression, the induction of apoptosis and growth inhibition. The miR-340-mediated downregulation of three post-transcriptional regulators [Pumilio RNA-binding family member (PUM)1, PUM2 and S-phase kinase-associated protein 2 (SKP2)] correlates with the upregulation of p27. PUM1 and PUM2 inhibit p27 at the translational level, by rendering the p27 transcript available to interact with two oncomiRs (miR-221 and miR-222), while the oncoprotein SKP2 inhibits the CDK inhibitor at the post-translational level by triggering the proteasomal degradation of p27, showing that miR-340 affected not only the synthesis but also the decay of p27. Moreover their data confirm the recent identification of transcripts encoding several pro-invasive proteins such as c-Met, implicated in breast cancer cell migration, RhoA and Rock1, implicated in the control of the migration and invasion of osteosarcoma cells, and E-cadherin mRNA, involved in the miR-340-induced loss of intercellular adhesion (106 and refs within).

Recently, miR-18a was demonstrated to play a protective role in colorectal carcinoma (CRC) by inhibiting the proliferation, invasion and migration of CRC cells by directly targeting the TBP-like 1 (TBPL1) gene. The onco-suppressor activity of miR-18a in CRC tissues and cell lines was supported by the finding that the content of this mRNA is markedly lower in tumor cells with respect to normal control tissues and cells (107). In addition Xishan et al (108) found that miR-320a acts as a novel tumor suppressor gene in chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) and can decrease the migratory, invasive, proliferative and apoptotic behavior of CML cells, as well as epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), by attenuating the expression of the BCR/ABL oncogene. Furthermore Zhao et al (109) demonstrated that miR-449a functions as a tumor suppressor in neuroblastoma by inducing cell differentiation and cell cycle arrest. Finally, Kalinowski et al (110) and Gu et al (111) demonstrated the significant role of miR-7 in cancer which functions by directly targeting and inhibiting key oncogenic signaling molecules involved in cell cycle progression, proliferation, invasion and metastasis. A partial list of onco-suppressor miRNAs is presented in Table I.

Table I

miRNAs exhibiting tumor suppressor functions.

Table I

miRNAs exhibiting tumor suppressor functions.

MicroRNADiseaseBiological effectsTarget mRNA/pathway Authors/(Refs.)
miR-1Head and neck squamous cell carcinoma (HNSCC), prostate cancerInhibition of cell proliferation, invasion, migration and promotion of apoptosis and cell cycle arrest; affected cellular organization of F-actin and impaired tumor cell invasion and filopodia formationTAGLN2, FN1, LASP1, XPO6, TWIST1, EGFRNohata et al (112); Hudson et al (113); Chang et al (114)
miR-7Breast, ovarian cancerSuppression of cell invasion and metastasis; inhibition of the ability of breast CSCs to metastasize to the brain; inhibition of tumor metastasis and reversed EMT in EOC cell linesSETDB1, KLF4, EGFR through AKT/ERK1/2 pathwayZhang et al (115); Okuda et al (116); Zhou et al (117)
miR-let-7Breast, lung, colon, ovarian cancerInhibition of invasion and bone metastasis; reduction of tumor growth, negative regulation of cell cycle-related oncogenesRAS, MYC, HMGA2, SnailLee and Dutta (83); Sampson et al (86); Trang et al (92); Dangi-Garimella et al (118); Takamizawa et al (119); Shi et al (120); Johnson et al (121)
miR-9Gastric cancerSuppression of invasion metastasisCyclin D1, Ets1Zheng et al (122)
miR-15a; miR-16-1Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), multiple myeloma, mantle cell lymphoma, prostate cancers, gastric adenocarcinomaInduction of apoptosis; decreased tumorigenity, evading growth suppressors, resisting cell deathBcl-2, cyclin D1, WNT3AAqeilan et al (123); Calin et al (124); Pekarsky et al (125); Bonci et al (126); Kang et al (127)
miR-16GlioblastomaRepression of endothelial function and angiogenesisBmi-1Chen et al (128)
miR-18aColorectal cancerDecrease of cell migration, altered cell morphology, G1/S phase cell cycle arrest, increased apoptosisCDC42Humphreys et al (129)
miR-25Prostate cancerInhibition of extravasion in vivoαv, α6 integrinsZoni et al (130)
miR-27aAcute leukemiaInhibition of cell growth due at least in part, to increased cellular apoptosisBax and BadScheibner et al (94)
miR-29cNasopharyngeal carcinomaInhibition of invasion and metastasisCollagens, Laminin γ1Sengupta et al (131)
miR-29s (miR-29a, miR-29b1, miR-29b2, miR-29c)Lung cancer, cervical carcinogenesis, cholangiocarcinoma, hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), melanoma and acute myeloid leukemia (AML) B and T cellsDecrease in cell proliferation and an increase in cell senescence and apoptosis; decreased AML cell growth and impairement of colony formation, longer survival of treated mice; improvement of anti-leukemic activity of decitabineCDK6, Ppm1d, osteonectin, Mcl-1, KIT, SP1, Bcl-2, DNMT3A, DNMT3B, DNMTs, Tcl-1, extracellular matrix genes, FLT3, Cdc42, p85aUgalde et al (132); Garzon et al (133); Garzon et al (134); Huang et al (98); Kapinas et al (135); Mott et al (136); Fabbri et al (137); Xiong et al (138); Filkowski et al (139); Wang et al (140); Hu et al (141)
miR-30bLaryngeal carcinomaAntitumor and pro-apoptotic effect in vivo and in vitrop53 via MDM2Li and Wang (142)
miR-31Breast cancer, lung adenocarcinoma (stem cells)Inhibition of multiple steps of metastasis, including invasion, anoikis and colonizationMET-PI3K-Akt, WAVE3Hou et al (143); Valastyan et al (144); Sossey-Alaoui et al (145)
miR-33aChronic myelogenous leukemia (CML), colon carcinomaDecelerated cell proliferation; reduced tumor cell proliferationPim-1Thomas et al (95); Ibrahim et al (91)
miR-33bBreast cancer lung metastasis, osteosarcomaInhibition of stemness, migration, invasion and metastasisHMGA2, SALL4, Twist1, c-MYCLin et al (146); Xu et al (147)
miR-34aBreast, lung, colon, kidney, prostate, bladder, pancreatic, bone and lung cancer, and melanomaBlocking of tumor growth; inhibition of cell migration, invasion and metastasis of cancer cells; suppression of prostate CSCs and metastasis; decrease in the production of the chemokine CCL22; disturbance of the bone metastatic nicheBcl-2, cyclin D1, cyclin E2, CDK4, CDK6, c-MYC, MET, N-MYC, SIRT1, Fra-1, CD44, CCL44, Tgif2He et al (148); Bommer et al (149); Fujita et al (150); Leucci et al (151); Saito et al (152); Wei et al (153); Yamakuchi et al (154); Lodygin et al (155); Wiggins et al (90); Yang et al (156); Yang et al (157); Liu et al (158); Krzeszinski et al (159)
miR-34bBreast, ovarian, endometrial cancerTumor suppressor in estrogen-dependent cell growthCyclin D1 and JAG1 in ER+/wild-type p53Lee et al (102); Wang et al (160)
miR-34cBreast, ovarian cancer, lung metastasisInhibition of cell migration; invasion and lung metastasisFra-1Yang et al (156); Yu et al (161)
miR-101-3pSalivary gland adenoid cystic carcinomaSuppression of cell proliferation, invasion and enhanced chemotherapeutic sensitivityPim-1Liu et al (162)
miR-122aLiver tumor and diseaseReduced disease manifestation and tumor incidenceKlf6Tsai et al (163)
miR-124Intrahepatic, bladder, colorectal and lung cancer, osteosarcoma, neuroblastoma, gliomaModulation of the intercellular adhesion of leading cells; inhibition of EMT in vitro and suppression of intrahepatic and pulmonary metastasis in vivo; suppression of motility and angiogenesis in bladder cancer cells, of migration and invasion of U-2OS and Saos-2 cellsIntegrin β1, ROCK2, EZH2, UHRF1, ROR2, MYO10, DNMT3B, PTB/PKM1/ PKM2 cascadeTaniguchi et al (164); Huang et al (165); Kato et al (166); Zheng et al (167); Wang et al (168); Zhang et al (169); Sun et al (170); Sun et al (171); Chen et al (172); Zhang et al (173)
miR-125aCervical cancerSuppression of tumor growth, invasion, metastasisARID3B, STAT3Cowden Dahl et al (174); Fan et al (175)
miR-126Non-small cell lung cancer cells, breast, thyroid, liver, colorectal cancer, osteosarcomaTumor suppressor genes involved in the control of cell proliferation and cell death, cell migration and blood vessel formation; inhibition of cell proliferation, invasion, migration and tumorigenesis; suppression of tumor metastasis and angiogenesis in hepatocellular carcinomaEGFL7, SLC7A5, ADAM9, IGFBP2, PITPNC1, MERTK, SDF-1&aSun et al (176); Xiong et al (177); Wang et al (178); Wen et al (179); Jiang et al (180); Du et al (181); Zhang et al (182); Png et al (183)
miR-128Glioblastoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemiaInhibition of angiogenesis and proliferation, inhibition of tumor cell progressionWEE1, p70S6K1, Msi1, E2F3a, Bmi-1, EGFR, PDGFRA, PIK3R1Shi et al (184); Wuchty et al (185); Zhang et al (186); Huang et al (187)
miR-133a; miR-133bEsophageal squamous cell carcinomaInhibition of cell proliferation and cell invasionFSCN1Kano et al (188)
miR-135aProstate cancerInhibition of cell invasion and migrationROCK1, ROCK2Kroiss et al (189)
miR-137Colorectal cancerReduction of invasivenessFMNL2Liang et al (190)
miR-143Non-small cell lung cancerSuppression of cell proliferation; inhibition of cell migration and invasion; induction of apoptosisLimk1Xia et al (191)
miR-145Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, colon carcinoma, gastric cancer, neuroblastomaInhibition of cell proliferation and cell invasion; reduced tumor proliferation and increased apoptosis; attenuation of gastric cancer cell migratory and invasive abilities in vitro and suppression of the metastatic cascade in vivo; inhibition of the invasion and metastasis of neuroblastoma cellsFSCN1, c-MYC, ERK5, N-cadherin, HIF-2αKano et al (188); Ibrahim et al (91); Gao et al (192); Zhang et al (193)
miR-146a/bProstate, breast cancerInhibition of cell invasion and migrationIRAK1, TRAF6, ROCK1Bhaumik et al (194); Lin et al (195)
miR-148aLiver, lung cancerInhibition of hepatoma cell migration in vitro and pulmonary metastatic colonization in vivoMET/Snail signalingZhang et al (196)
miR-148bBreast cancerInhibition of multiple steps of tumor progression via the regulation of invasion, resistance to anoikis, extravasation, lung metastasis, colonization and chemo-therapeutic responseITGA5, ROCK1, PIK3CA/p110α, NRAS, CSF1Cimino et al (197)
miR-149Breast, lung cancerInhibition of basal-like breast cancer cell migration and invasion in vitro; impairment of lung colonization in vivoRap1a, Rap1bBischoff et al (198)
miR-181bChronic lymphocytic leukemiaInhibition of disease progressionMcl-1, Bcl-2Visone et al (199)
miR-182GlioblastomaInhibition of cell growth and cell differentiationBcl-2L12, c-MET, HIF2AKouri et al (200)
miR-193bBreast cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomaAlteration of ERα signaling, such as steroid synthesis and downregulation of the ERα receptor; negative regulation of long non-coding oncogenic RNAAKR1C2, AKR1C1, YWHAZ (14-3-3 family protein), RNA MIR31HGLeivonen et al (201); Yang et al (202)
miR-198Hepatocellular carcinomaInhibition of migration and invasionHGF/c-METTan et al (203)
miR-204Neuroblastoma, gliomaStimulation of increased sensitivity to cisplatin treatment and promotion of cell survival; alteration of glioma progression, invasion and migrationTrkBBao et al (204); Xia et al (205)
miR-205Human prostate cancerReduction of cell migration/ invasion through downregulation of protein kinase C epsilonCHN1, ErbB3, E2F1, E2F5, ZEB2, PRKCEGandellini et al (206)
miR-206Breast cancerInhibition of cell invasion and migrationMETChen et al (207)
miR-214Colorectal cancer, liver metastasisSuppression of cell migration and invasion in vitro; inhibition of liver metastasis of colorectal cancer cells in vivoFGFR1Chen et al (208)
miR-218Gastric cancerSuppression of tumor metastasesROBO1Tie et al (209)
miR-296-5pProstate cancerReduction of growth invasion and progressionHMGA1Wei et al (210)
miR-302Breast cancerSensitization of radioresistant breast cancer cells to ionizing radiationAKT1, RAD52Liang et al (99)
miR-302bHepatocellular carcinomaSuppression of cell proliferationEGFRWang et al (211)
miR-335Breast cancerInhibition of cell invasion, migration and metastasisSOX4, PTPRN2, MERTK, TNCTavazoie et al (212); Hurst et al (213)
miR-383 MedulloblastomaControl of cell growthPRDX3Li et al (214)
miR-449Gastric cancer, non-small cell lung cancerInhibition of cell proliferation, inhibition of migration and invasionGMNN, MET, CCNE2, SIRT1Bou Kheir et al (215) Luo et al (216)
miR-493Colon, lung cancerInhibition of the settlement of metastasized colon cancer cells in the liver; promotion of the death of colon cancer cells; suppression of tumor growth, invasion and metastasis in lungsIGFR, E2F1, MKK7Okamoto et al (217); Gu et al (218); Sakai et al (219)
miR-504Hypopharyngeal squamous cell carcinomaInhibition of cancer cells proliferationCDK6Kikkawa et al (220)
miR-520c/373Breast cancerInhibition of cell invasion in vitro and the cell intravasation in vivoRELA, TGFBR2Keklikoglou et al (221)
miR-545Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, lung cancer cellsInhibition of cell growth and proliferationRIG-1, CDK4Song et al (222); Bowen et al (223)
miR-596Oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC)Growth inhibitionLGALS3BPEndo et al (96)

3. OncomiRNAs and metastamiRNAs

miRNAs can act as oncogenes and have been demonstrated to play a causal role in the onset and progression of human cancer (oncomiRNAs) (224233). Recent findings have nevertheless identified a subclass of miRNAs whose expression is highly associated with the acquisition of metastatic phenotypes and are referred to as miRs endowed with either metastasis-promoting or tumor suppressor inhibitory activities (213,234,235).

Recent data have revealed that miR-25 may act as an onco-miRNA in osteosarcoma, negatively regulating the protein expression of the cell cycle inhibitor, p27. In agreement with this hypothesis restoring the p27 level in miR-25-over-expressing cells was shown to reverse the enhancing effect of miR-25 on Saos-2 and U2OS cell proliferation (236). In addition a recent study published by Siu et al (237), describes miR-96 as a potential target of therapeutics for metastatic prostate cancer, demonstrating the enhanced effects in cellular growth and invasiveness of miR-96 in cell lines (AC1, AC3 and SC1) derived from prostate-specific, Pten/Tp53 double knockout mice and confirmed in tissue samples from prostate cancer patients. miR-96 acts as an oncomiR and metastamiR through TGF-β/mTOR signaling, promoting bone metastasis and contributing to a reduced survival rate in prostate cancer (237). Furthermore Xia et al (238) demonstrated that the overexpression of miR-1908 significantly decreased the expression of PTEN in glioblastoma cells, one of the most frequently mutated tumor suppressors in human cancer, resulting in an increase in proliferation, migration and invasion. Finally Sachdeva et al (239), found that miR-182 targets multiple genes in lung metastasis and regulates intravasation, thus increasing the number of circulating tumor cells (CTCs). Only the simultaneous restoration of miR-182 target genes decreased the number of metastases in vivo, demonstrating that a single miRNA can regulate the metastasis of primary tumors in vivo by the coordinated regulation of multiple genes. Selected examples of oncomiRNAs and metastamiRNAs are presented in Tables II and III. All these miRNAs act by inhibiting tumor suppressor pathways.

Table II

miRNAs exhibiting oncogenic functions.

Table II

miRNAs exhibiting oncogenic functions.

MicroRNADiseaseBiological effectsTarget mRNA/pathway Authors/(Refs.)
miR-10bHuman esophageal cancer cells, gastric carcinomaPromotion of migration and invasionKLF4Tian et al (240); Wang et al (241)
miR-21Breast, colon, pancreatic, lung, prostate, liver and stomach cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia; acute myeloid leukaemia, glioblastoma, neuroblastomaStimulation of cellular proliferation; action on mitochondrial apoptosis tumor-supressive pathways, resisting cell deathPTEN, TPM1, PDCD4, p63, RECK, p53, TGF-βChan et al (242); Zhu et al (230); Frankel et al (231); Volinia et al (233)
miR-23bRenal cancer cellsDownregulation of POX (tumor suppressor), increase in HIF signalingPOXLiu et al (243)
miR-27aProstate cancerIncrease in the expression of AR target genes and prostate cancer cell growthPHBFletcher et al (244)
miR-100Myeloid leukemia, gliomaPromotion of cell differentiation, survival and apoptosisRBSP3, ATMNg et al (245); Zheng et al (246)
miR-125bB-cell leukemiaInduction of cell differentiation and transformationMAP3K11, ARID3BKnackmuss et al (247)
miR-132
miR-212
Pancreatic adenocarcinoma (PDAC)Stimulation of cell proliferation via the β2 adrenergic pathwayRb1Park et al 2011 (248)
miR-155Lymphoma, leukemia, breast, colon, lung, pancreatic, thyroid brain cancer, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL)Causes the constitutive activation of signal transducer and activator of transcription 3, sustaining proliferative signaling, resistance of cell death, activation invasion, migration and metastasisSOCS1, RhoA, FOXO3a, VHLKong et al (249); Jiang et al (250); Czyzyk-Krzeska et al (251); Wang et al (252); Ling et al (253); Musilova et al (254)
miR-17NeuroblastomaMarked increase of in vitro and in vivo tumorigenesisp21, BIMFontana et al (255)
miR-182MelanomaPromotion of melanoma metastasesMITF, FOXO3Segura et al (256)
miR-214Ovarian cancerStimulation of cell survival and cisplatin resistancePTENYang et al (257)
miR-221
miR-222
Atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumors (ATRT), osteosarcoma, glioma, breast cancer, follicular thyroid carcinoma (FTC), digestive system carcinomaDecrease of cell cycle inhibitor p27Kip1, tumor development and progression by regulating proliferative signaling pathways, altering telomere and telomerase activity, avoiding cell death from tumor suppressors, autophagy and apoptosis, monitoring angiogenesis, supporting epithelial-mesenchymal transition, and even controlling cell-specific function within the microenvironmentp27Kip1, PTEN, KIT, TRPS1, PUMA, PTPμ, FOXO3, PIK3R1, TIMP3, TIMP2, DDIT4, MDM2, ERα, SOCS3, OCS1, HDAC6, ANGPTL2, BBC3, BMF, RECK, PDLIM2, RelA, p57Kip2Zhang et al (258); Garofalo et al (259); Quintavalle et al (260); Chen et al (261); Matsuzaki et al (262)
miR-296Brain tumorsPromotion of angiogenesisHGSWurdinger et al (263)
miR-301Breast cancerPromotion of growth, proliferation, invasion and metastasesFOXF2, BBC3, PTENShi et al (264)
miR-372
miR-373
Testicular tumorsPromotion of tumorigenesis in cooperation with RASLATS2Voorhoeve et al (265)
miR-375Gastric cancerPromotion of carcinogenesisJAK2, PDK1Xu et al (266)
miR-378Breast carcinomaEhnancement of cell survival; reduction of caspase-3 activity; promotion of growth and angiogenesisSufu, Fus-1Lee et al (267)
miR-519aHepatocellular carcinoma, breast cancerPromotion of tumor growth, proliferation; inhibition of apoptosis; tamoxifen resistancePTEN/PI3K/ AKT/FOXF2Tu et al (268); Shao et al (269); Ward et al (270)
miR-675Colorectal cancerOverexpression of H19 (oncofetal non-coding RNA) in cancer tissuesRBTsang et al (271)
miR-1908GlioblastomaPromotion of anchorage independent growth in vitro, increasing of tumor forming potential in vivoPTENXia et al (238)

Table III

miRNAs promoting metastasis.

Table III

miRNAs promoting metastasis.

MicroRNADiseaseBiological effectsTarget mRNA/ pathway Authors/(Refs.)
miR-9Breast, colon cancerPromotion of breast cancer cell motility and invasiveness; enhancement of squamous cell carcinoma CSC expansion and metastasisCDH1, LIFR, α-cateninMa et al (272); Chen et al (273); White et al (274)
miR-10bBreast cancer, glioblastomaPromotion of EMT, migration, invasion and metastasisTP53, PAX6, NOTCH1, HOXD10Ma et al (275); Lin et al (276)
miR-15bPancreatic cancerPromotion of EMTSMURF2Zhang et al (277)
miR-19a/bGastric cancerFacilitation of cell migration, invasion and metastasisMXD1Wu et al (278)
miR-20aCervical, gallbladder cancerFacilitation of cancer cell proliferation and metastasis in vitro and increased tumor growth in vivo; induction of EMTATG7, TIMP2, Smad7Chang et al (279); Zhao et al (280)
miR-21Breast, lung, brain, cervical and colorectal cancer, melanomaDrive to epithelial collective cell migration, invasion, cell metastasis and apoptosis; enhancement of colorectal cancer cell intravasionTPM1, PDCD4, Maspin (SERPINB5), PTEN, PI3K, Sprouty, p53, cyclin D1, FOXO1, FBXO11, TIPE2, MSH2, hTERT, HIF1α, TIMP3, APAF1Zhu et al (230); Dean et al (281); Peacock et al (282); Xu et al (283); Asangani et al (284); Hurst et al (213); Melnik et al (285)
miR-96Prostate cancerBone metastasis, enhanced effects on cellular growth and invasivenessTGF-β/mTOR signalingSiu et al (237)
miR-105Breast cancerDestruction of the integrity of vascular endothelial barriers to promote metastasisZO-1Zhou et al (286)
miR-122Breast cancerPromotion of metastatic colonizationPKM2,Fong et al (287)
miR-135bLung cancerPromotion of cell migration, invasion and metastasisLATS2, TrCP, NDR2, LZTST1Lin et al (288)
miR-181aBreast cancerPromotion of breast cancer metastasisBim/TGF-βTaylor et al (289)
miR-182Gallbladder, sarcoma, lung cancerPromotion of metastasis, circulating tumor cells (CTC); regulation of intravasionCADM1, RSU1, MTSS1, PAI1, TIMP1Qiu et al (290); Sachdeva et al (239)
miR-183Oesophageal carcinomaPromotion of proliferation and invasionPDCD4Ren et al (291)
miR-200sBreast, ovarian cancerActivation of invasion and metastasis (but in other cases inhibition)ZEB1, ZEB2, SIP1, Sec23aKorpal et al (292); Korpal et al (293); Park et al (294); Gregory et al (295)
miR-214Lung adenocarcinoma, melanomaPromotion of migration, invasion and resistance to anoikis of melanoma cells in vitro and the extravasation and lung metastasis formation in vivo; promotion of EMT and metastasisTFAP2C, SufuPenna et al (296); Penna et al (297); Long et al (298)
miR-296-3pProstate cancerPromotion of metastasisICAM1Liu et al (299)
miR-296-5pProstate cancerPromotion of growth and invasion, metastatic progression, and persistence of cancer-initiating cellsNumbl (Klf4 signaling)Vaira et al (300)
miR-362-5pHepatocellular carcinomaPromotion of cell proliferation, migration, invasion in vitro; and tumor growth and metastasis in vivoCYLDNi et al (301)
miR-373Breast cancerDrives EMT and metastasisTXNIPChen et al (302)
miR-520cFibrosarcoma, benign prostatic hyperplasia, glioblastomaPromotion of migration and metastasisMT1-MMPLu et al (303)

4. Mimicking tumor suppressor miRNAs in miRNA replacement therapy

Using the development of anticancer therapies as a representative field of investigation, the therapeutic strategy based on miRNA replacement is targeted to pathological cells which downregulate onco-suppressor miRNAs playing a role in controlling the expression of mRNAs encoding key oncoproteins. The downregulation of these oncogene-targeting miRNAs is clearly the key step for oncogene upregulation leading to tumor onset and progression. Table IV presents selected examples of miRNA replacement therapy in cancer research and treatment (9092,9497,99).

Table IV

miRNA replacement therapy of cancer: selected examples.

Table IV

miRNA replacement therapy of cancer: selected examples.

Tumor typemiRNA targetModulated mRNAEffects following miR treatement Authors/(Refs.)
Lung cancermiR-34aRepression of c-Met, Bcl-2; partial repression of CDK4Block of tumor growthWiggins et al (90)
Colon carcinomamiR-33aPim-1Reduced tumor proliferationIbrahim et al (91)
Colon carcinomamiR-145c-Myc and ERK5Reduced tumor proliferation and increased apoptosisIbrahim et al (91)
Lung cancermiR-let7Negative regulation of the cell cycle oncogenes RAS, MYC and HMGA2Reduction of tumor growthTrang et al (92)
Acute leukemiamiR-27aBax and BadInhibition of cell growth due, at least in part, to increased cellular apoptosisScheibner et al (94)
CML cellsmiR-33aPim-1Decelerated cell proliferationThomas et al (95)
Oral squamous cell carcinoma (OSCC)miR-596LGALS3BPGrowth inhibitionEndo et al (96)
Non-small cell lung adenocarcinomas, A549 cellsmiR-29bCDK6, DNMT3B, MCL-1Inhibition of tumorigenicity in vivoWu et al (97)
Acute myeloid leukemiamiR-29bDownregulation of DNMTs, CDK6, SP1, KIT and FLT3Decreased AML cell growth and impairement of colony formation; longer survival of treated mice; improvement of antileukemic activity of decitabineHuang et al (98)
Laryngeal carcinomamiR-30bp53 via MDM2Antitumor and pro-apoptotic effect in vivo and in vitroLi and Wang (142)
Breast cancermiR-302AKT1 and RAD52Sensitized radioresistant breast cancer cells to ionizing radiationLiang et al (99)

As a first representative example, Fig. 2A presents the major results obtained by Wu et al (97), who reported that the in vivo restoration of miR-29b may represent an option for lung cancer treatment. To demonstrate the efficacy of this strategy, they developed a cationic lipoplexes (LPs)-based carrier that efficiently delivered miR-29b both in vitro and in vivo. LPs containing miR-29b (LP-miR-29b) efficiently delivered miR-29b to A549 cells and reduced the expression of the key target, CDK6. In a xenograft murine model, in which LPs efficiently accumulated at tumor sites, the systemic delivery of LP-miR-29b increased miR-29b expression in tumors, downregulated CDK6 mRNA expression in tumors and, as shown in the upper panels of Fig. 2A, significantly inhibited tumor growth.

A second example of miRNA replacement therapy has been published by Glover et al (304), who reported that miR-7-5p (miR-7) reduces cell proliferation in vitro and induces G1 cell cycle arrest. The systemic miR-7 administration with delivery vesicles reduced adrenocortical carcinoma (ACC) xenograft growth originating from both ACC cell lines and primary ACC cells. As far as the potential mechanisms of action, miR-7 was demonstrated to target Raf-1 proto-oncogene serine/threonine kinase (RAF1). Additionally, miR-7 therapy in vivo led to the inhibition of cyclin dependent kinase 1 (CDK1) (304). Two other methods have also been used to successfully deliver miR-7 in vivo to treat cancer. In a study by Babae et al (305), a miR-7 mimic was systemically delivered using clinically viable, biodegradable, targeted polyamide nanoparticles. This strategy led to the successful inhibition of tumor growth and vascularisation in a glioblastoma xenograft model system. In an earlier study, Wang et al (306) was able to inhibit glioma xenograft growth and metastasis using a plasmid based miR-7 vector systemically delivered by encapsulation in a cationic liposome formulation.

Moreover, Cortez et al (307) revealed a novel function of miR-200c, a member of the miR-200 family, in regulating intracellular reactive oxygen species signaling. They used a lung cancer xenograft model to demonstrate the therapeutic potential of the systemic delivery of miR-200c to enhance radiosensitivity in lung cancer. The results obtained suggest that the antitumor effects of miR-200c result partially from its regulation of the oxidative stress response; they further suggested that miR-200c, in combination with radiation, may represent an effective therapeutic strategy in the future.

Recently, Wu et al (308) reported that the expression of miR-708-5p suppressed lung cancer invasion and metastasis in vitro and in vivo. In particular, it induces apoptosis and suppresses cell migration by inhibiting the cytoplasmic localization of p21, and also weakens the stem cell-like properties of lung cancer cells. In their study, they present the systemic delivery of the PEI/miR-708-5p complexes for miRNA replacement therapy in a mouse model of lung cancer, demonstrating an efficient antitumor activity with no side-effects.

5. Targeting oncomiRNAs

The effects of therapeutic molecules against miRNAs have been the object of very recent studies, in part summarized in Table V (309316). Of course, the endpoint of the treatment of target cells with molecules against selected miRNAs is the alteration of miRNA-regulated genes. As a first example, Wagenaar et al (317) developed potent and specific single-stranded oligonucleotide inhibitors of miR-21 and used them to verify dependency on miR-21 in a panel of liver cancer cell lines. Treatment with anti-miR-21, but not with a mismatch control anti-miRNA, resulted in the significant derepression of direct targets of miR-21 and led to the loss of viability in the majority of HCC cell lines tested. The robust induction of caspase activity, apoptosis and necrosis was noted in the anti-miR-21-treated HCC cells. Furthermore, the ablation of miR-21 activity resulted in the inhibition of HCC cell migration and in the suppression of clonogenic growth (317).

Table V

AntagomiR-based miRNA targeting therapy of cancer: selected examples.

Table V

AntagomiR-based miRNA targeting therapy of cancer: selected examples.

Cells/tissuesmiRNA targetModulated mRNAEffects following antagomiR treatment Authors/(Refs.)
NeuroblastomamiR-17p21, BIMStrongly increase of in vitro and in vivo tumorigenesisFontana et al (255)
Human glioblastomamiR-27aFOXO3aSuppression of U87 growth in vitro and in vivoGe et al (309)
Malignat astrocytoma cellsmiR-335Daam1Growth arrest, cell apoptosis, invasion repression and marked regression of astrocytoma xenograftsShu et al (310)
Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC)miR-155CDC73Decreased cell viability, increased apoptosis, and marked regression of xenografts in nude miceRather et al (311)
NeuroblastomamiR-92DKK3Increases release of the tumor suppressor Dickkopf-3 (DKK3), a secreted protein of the DKK family of Wnt regulatorsHaug et al (312)
GliomamiR-381LRRC4Decreased cell proliferation and tumor growthTang et al (313)
Breast cancermiR-10bHoxd10Suppression of formation of lung metastasesMa et al (314)
Prostate cancer miR-221/miR-222p27Reduction of tumor growthMercatelli et al (315)
Pancreatic cancermiR-221/miR-21SOCS6, SMAD7, CDK6, KLF12, MAPK10Modulation of tumorigenesis, metastasis, and chemotherapy resistance in stem-like cellsZhao et al (316)

In another study, using PNAs as anti-miRNA molecules, Fabani et al (318) targeted miR-155, demonstrating the deregulation of mRNA Bat5, Sfp1 and Jarid2. In our laboratory, Brognara et al analyzed the effects of PNAs targeting miR-221 on breast cancer cells (319). In order to maximize uptake in target cells, a polyarginine-peptide (R8) was conjugated, generating an anti-miR-221 PNA displaying very high affinity for RNA and efficient uptake within target cells without the need for transfection reagents. Targeting miR-221 with this PNA molecule resulted in i) a specific decrease in the hybridization levels of miR-221 measured by RT-qPCR, ii) the upregulation of p27Kip1 mRNA and protein expression, measured by RT-qPCR and western blot analysis, respectively. As regards the in vivo effects of anti-miRNA therapy, Yan et al (320) addressed the potential effects of PNA-anti-miR-21 in vivo on the growth of breast cancer cells. In their experiments, MCF-7 cells treated with PNA-anti-miR-21 or PNA-control were subcutaneously injected into female nude mice and detectable tumor masses were observed in few mice in the MCF/PNA-anti-miR-21 group, while much larger tumors were detected in all mice in the MCF/PNA-control group. Both tumor weight and number showed that MCF/PNA-control cells formed larger tumors more rapidly than MCF/PNA-anti-miR-21 cells in nude mice. As a final example, Cheng et al (57) demonstrated that the PNA anti-miRs with a peptide with a low pH-induced transmembrane structure (pHLIP) target the tumor microenvironment, transport anti-miRs across plasma membranes under acidic conditions, such as those found in solid tumors and effectively inhibit the miR-155 oncomiR in a mouse model of lymphoma.

6. MicroRNAs and epithelial-mesenchymal transition

EMT is a powerful process in tumor invasion, metastasis and tumorigenesis, and describes the molecular reprogramming and phenotypic changes that are characterized by a transition from polarized immotile epithelial cells to motile mesenchymal cells (Fig. 3). This process is characterized by the loss of polarity and cell-cell contacts by the differentiated epithelial cells, with deep alterations occurring at the level of tight junctions and desmosomes. The breach of the basement membrane is a following step, leading to the invasion of blood and/or lymphatic vessels by these mesenchymal differentiated cancer cells, which at the end of the process, causes migration, often accompanied by drug resistance (Fig. 3). It is now well-known that several miRNAs are important regulators of EMT. Some of these are miR-7, miR-17/20, miR-22, miR-30, miR-200 and its family members. Most of these miRNAs potentiate EMT, while some well-characterized miRNAs play a suppressive role in EMT. For instance, the metastasis suppressor role of the miR-200 members is strongly associated with the inhibition of EMT. This is well described in the published review by Zhang and Ma (321), and in the studies by Zaravinos et al (322) and Kiesslich et al (323), showing the most recent advances regarding the influence of miRNAs in EMT and the regulatory effects they exert on major signaling pathways in various types of cancer (Fig. 3). In Caski cervical cancer cells, the oncomiR-155 acts as a tumor suppressor and suppresses EGF-induced EMT, decreasing migration/invasion capacities, inhibiting cell proliferation and enhancing the chemosensitivity to DDP in humans (324). Chang et al (279) demonstrated that the overexpression of miR-20a in gallbladder carcinoma cells induced EMT and promoted metastasis via the direct inhibition of Smad7, correlating this miRNA with local invasion, distant metastasis and a poor prognosis in patients with gallbladder carcinoma.

In the ovarian surface epithelium, EMT is considered the key regulator of the post-ovulatory repair process and it can be triggered by a range of environmental stimuli. The aberrant expression of the miR-200 family (miR-200a, miR-200b, miR-200c, miR-141 and miR-429) in ovarian cancer, and its involvement in the initiation and progression of ovarian cancer have been well demonstrated. The miR-200 family members seem to be strongly associated with EMT and to have a metastasis suppressor role. miRNA signatures can accurately distinguish ovarian cancer from the normal ovary and can be used as diagnostic tools to predict the clinical response to chemotherapy. Recent evidence suggests a growing list of novel miRNAs (miR-187, miR-34a, miR-506, miRNA-138, miR-30c, miR-30d, miR-30e-3p, miR-370 and miR-106a, among others) that are also implicated in ovarian cancer-associated EMT, either enhancing or suppressing it. MicroRNA-based gene therapy provides a prospective antitumor approach for integrated cancer therapy (325).

As regards the molecular targets of EMT-regulating miRNAs, several are known and validated. Among these, transcription factors play a very important role. For instance, Gao et al (326) identified SOX2 as a key player in EMT, by examining the effects of its overexpression. They demonstrated that SOX2-overexpressing Eca-109 cells exhibited an enhanced cell migration/invasion capacity. Moreover, these cells exhibited characteristics of EMT, that is, a significantly suppressed expression of the epithelial cell marker with a concomitant enhancement in the expression of mesenchymal markers. An increased expression of Slug in SOX2-overexpressing cells suggested the involvement of this transcription factor in SOX2-regulated metastasis. Finally, the expression levels of STAT3/HIF-1α were found to be upregulated in SOX2-expressing cells, and the blockade of these transcription factors resulted in the inhibition of Slug expression at both the protein and mRNA level.

Of interest, is also the finding that miR-221/222, which are involved in EMT as positive regulators, can be transcriptionally controlled by Slug. This was demonstrated by Lambertini et al (327), who showed that Slug silencing significantly decreased the level of miR-221, strongly suggesting that miR-221 is a Slug target gene. This was further confirmed by the characterization of a specific region of the miR-221 promoter that is transcriptionally active and is bound by the transcription factor Slug in vivo.

On the other hand, various miRNAs have been reported to directly target EMT-promoting transcription factors. For instance Qiu et al (328) found that miR-139-5p functions as a suppressor of EMT in HCC and metastasis by targeting ZEB1 and ZEB2, and that it may be a therapeutic target for metastatic HCC. In conclusion, miRNAs targeting and miRNA mimicking strategies are both expected to be suitable for the control of EMT.

7. MicroRNAs and neoangiogenesis

A very important step in tumor dissemination and metastasis is neoangiogenesis. This is a very complex process in which several proteins and protein networks participate, for instance interleukin (IL)-8, vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), angiopoietins and matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs). As far as the expression of the IL-8 gene is concerned, the increase in IL-8 gene expression from the healthy brain to low-grade glioma (LGG) can be explained by alterations in the regulatory networks associated with IL-8 gene transcription. Among these, the nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) network should be proposed, since i) NF-κB is one of the major transcription factors involved in IL-8 gene regulation (329); ii) NF-κB is a marker of glioma onset and progression (330333); iii) miR-16 inhibits glioma cell growth through the suppression of the NF-κB signaling pathway (334). In addition to transcription factors, miRNAs can directly modulate pro-angiogenic factors. For instance, the increased IL-8 gene expression in high-grade glioma (HGG; with respect to LGG) may be associated with decrease of its inhibitory miRNA, miR-93, at least in a subset of HGG patients. The decrease in miR-93 expression in these HGG patients, in addition to IL-8, may lead to the post-transcriptional upregulation of VEGF, monocyte chemoattractant protein-1 (MCP-1) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF)-bb, well recognized markers of the late tumor stages of gliomas (335337). However, it should be mentioned that HGG samples are highly heterogeneous with respect to miR-93 levels, suggesting the involvement of multiple regulatory pathways in controlling the level of IL-8 gene expression.

8. Selected examples of miRNA therapeutics: mimicking miR-124

One of the better described examples of tumor suppressor miRNAs is miR-124. This miRNA has been found to play a significant role in several types of cancer (168173,338). Specifically, miR-124 expression is reportedly downregulated in the cells and tissues of esophageal cancer (339), breast cancer (340), renal cell carcinoma (341) and CRC (172). Accordingly, the ectopic expression of miR-124 by target tumor cells inhibits tumor-related parameters in experimental model systems mimicking prostate cancer, medulloblastoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, gastric cancer, glioma, osteosarcoma and CRC.

For instance, Taniguchi et al (164) recently demonstrated that the ectopic expression of miR-124 induced apoptosis and autophagy in colon cancer cells. In addition, miR-124 was demonstrated to target polypyrimidine tract-binding protein 1 (PTB1), which is a splicer of pyruvate kinase muscles 1 and 2 (PKM1 and PKM2), and to induce the switching of PKM isoform expression from PKM2 to PKM1 (164). In addition to this study, Lu et al (342) demonstrated that miR-124a expression was downregulated in human glioma tissues, and that its expression level negatively correlated with the pathological grade of the glioma. The restoration of miR-124a inhibited glioma cell proliferation and invasion in vitro.

Furthermore, they found that miR-124a directly targeted and suppressed IQ motif containing GTPase activating protein 1 (IQGAP1), a well-known regulator of actin dynamics and cell motility (342). Taken together all these data clearly demonstrate that miR-124a is an important tumor suppressor miRNA which is downregulated in cancer cells; accordingly antitumor effects can be achieved following the administration of miR-124, pre-miR-124 or a variety of miR-124 mimics to cancer cells.

Finally, the translational relevance of the role of miR-124 in antitumor drug sensitivity is suggested by the finding that the increased miR-124 expression correlates with an improved breast cancer prognosis, specifically in patients receiving chemotherapy. This finding suggests that miR-124 may potentially be used as a therapeutic agent to improve the efficacy of chemotherapy, including that based on DNA-damaging agents via ATM interactor (ATMIN)- and poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase 1 (PARP1)-mediated mechanisms (343).

9. Selected examples of miRNA therapeutics: mimicking miR-93

A second example of possible miRNA replacement therapy is based on the inhibition of IL-8 and VEGF by the transfection of tumor target cells with pre-miR-93. This was performed in human glioma cell lines (U251 and T98G), as well as on the SK-N-AS neuroblastoma cell line.

The first conclusion of this research activity is that the miRNA, miR-93, is involved in the control of the expression of the IL-8 gene in the glioma U251 and in the neuroblastoma SK-N-AS cell lines (344,345). The effects of these treatments were analyzed by RT-qPCR (looking at the IL-8 mRNA content) or by Bio-plex analysis (looking at IL-8 protein secretion). In addition, Fabbri et al (344) found that the transfection of target cells with pre-miR-93 led to the downregulation of VEGF (see the results depicted in Fig. 4A), suggesting that, as shown in Fig. 4B, miR-93 has effects on the growth of gliomas [by interfering with growth factors, including PDGF, fibroblast growth factor (FGF), granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF) and granulocyte-colony stimulating factor(G-CSF)], as well as on neoangiogenesis.

10. Selected examples of anti-miRNA therapeutics: targeting miR-221/222

Gliomas, as other tumors, express miR-221 at high levels, promoting malignant progression through activation of the Akt pathway and the inhibition of p27Kip1 (346349). In addition miR-221 mediates the downregulation of other genes, such as PUMA (258), intercellular adhesion molecule 1 (ICAM-1) (350), TIMP metallopeptidase inhibitor 3 (TIMP3) (351) and phosphatase and tensin homolog (PTEN) (352), and may thus be associated with cancer onset and progression (353). Therefore, miR-221 appears to be a specific target for the treatment of gliomas (354,355). Zhang et al (354) reported that the co-suppression of the miR-221/222 cluster suppressed human glioma cell growth by affecting p27Kip1 expression in vitro and in vivo. In our own laboratory, we have also examined the effects of a PNA against miR-221 and showed that it is able to induce a sharp decrease in miR-221 biological activity. The employed PNA carryed an Arg(8) peptide to facilitate PNA uptake by target cells. Two studies were published on this specific issue. In the first study by Brognara et al (319), we demonstrated that targeting miR-221 induced a sharp increase in the expression of the miR-221 target p27Kip1 mRNA in a breast cancer cell line (319). In a more recent study of ours, Brognara et al (56) demonstrated that the PNA against miR-221 can be internalized by glioma cells when linked to a Arg(8) tail (R8), leading to the inhibition of miR-221 functions, associated with the increased expression of p27Kip1 in U251 and T98G cells. In addition, the expression of another miR-221 target gene, TIMP3, was upregulated following treatment of the T98G cells with R8-PNA-a221. These data support the concept that targeting miR-221 with antagomiR molecules may provide novel options for developing protocols for the treatment of gliomas. This is supported by the finding that the treatment of all the glioma cells lines with R8-PNA-a221 induced the activation of the early apoptotic pathway (56).

11. Combined treatments: targeting multiple miRNAs

Several tumors express upregulated levels of several miRNAs, suggesting that a possible limit to anti-mRNA therapeutics may be the requirement of the co-targeting of several miRNAs to obtain the programmed biological effects. Moreover, an important anti-miRNA strategy may be associated with the obvious need for the co-targeting of different miRNAs belonging to the same miRNA family.

miRNA-replacement therapy

Yang et al (356) found that the co-transfection of miR-137/197 resulted in a reduction in myeloid cell leukemia 1 (MCL-1) protein expression, as well as in the alteration of the expression of apoptosis-related genes, the induction of apoptosis, and in the inhibition of the viability, colony-forming ability and migration ability of multiple myeloma cells. MCL-1 was further validated as a direct target of miR-137/197. Conversely, the overexpression of MCL-1 partially reversed the effects of miR-137/197. Importantly, the in vivo lentiviral-mediated or intratumor delivery of miR-137/197 induced the regression of tumors in murine xenograft models of multiple myeloma (356).

Anti-miRNA therapy

The co-treatment of target cells with antagomiR molecules selective for different miRNAs has been recently described. For instance, Lee et al (357) investigated the role of miRNAs targeting runt related transcription factor 3 (RUNX3) in early tumorigenesis. Under hypoxic conditions, miR-130a and miR-495 are upregulated and target RUNX3 by binding to its 3′-UTR in gastric cancer cells. Using matrigel plug assay, they found that antagomiRs specific for miR-130a and miR-495 significantly reduced angiogenesis in vivo and hypothesized that the co-targeting of miR-130a and miR-495 may prove to be a potential therapeutic strategy with which to recover RUNX3 expression under hypoxic conditions and in early tumorigenesis (357).

In a recent study, Brognara et al (358) treated glioma cell lines with a combined administration of antagomiR-PNAs targeting miR-221 and miR-222. In fact, the same site recognized by miR-221 in the 3′UTR of target mRNAs can be also identified by miR-222, as suggested by predicted molecular interactions using PUMA 3′UTR as a model system. Therefore, the targeting of miR-221 with antagomiRs may not be sufficient to achieve the complete suppression of miR-221 biological activity due to the presence of miR-222 in target cells. Since miR-221 and miR-222 belong to the same transcriptional unit and are, as expected, co-expressed in tumor cell lines (U251, U373 and T98G), Zhang et al (354) determined whether the co-administration of antagomiRs recognizing miR-221 and miR-222 would lead to a more efficient inhibitory activity on miR-221/222 dependent functions. The results obtained demonstrated that the co-suppression of miR-221/222 directly resulted in the upregulation of p27Kip1 in the tested cells and in the inhibtion of cell growth by reducing a G1 to S shift in the cell cycle. Consistently, the knockdown of miR-221/222 through antisense 2′-OME-oligonucleotides increased p27Kip1 expression in mice with U251 glioma subcutaneous tumors and markedly reduced tumor growth in vivo through the upregulation of p27Kip1 (354).

In our own laboratory, we have approached the same issue using PNAs. We have previously reported that a PNA targeting miR-221 can be internalized by glioma cells and exert biological effects on miR-221-dependent functions when it is linked to an octaarginine tail (R8) (56). The major results of the more recent study by Brognara et al (358) are the following: i) R8-conjugated PNAs against miR-221 (R8-PNA-a221) and miR-222 (R8-PNA-a222) exhibit selective biological activity on miR-221 and miR-222; ii) when R8-PNA-a221 and R8-PNA-a222 are singularly administered to glioma cells, the specific inhibition of hybridization to miR-221 and miR-222 is obtained following RT-qPCR analysis; iii) both R8-PNA-a221 and R8-PNA-a222 induce the apoptosis of U251, U373 and T98G glioma cells. Finally, the co-administration of R8-PNA-a221 and R8-PNA-a222 was associated with the most prominent effects of this treatment in inducing apoptosis (see the representative experimental results shown in Fig. 5) (358).

12. Combined treatments: co-administration of antitumor drugs and miRNA therapeutic agents

One of the most interesting results obtained to date using miRNA therapeutics is the formal demonstration that, when used in combination with antitumor drugs, satisfactory therapeutic effects may be achieved (359). This has been demonstrated using both miRNA mimicking approaches, as well as anti-miRNA molecules.

miRNA replacement therapy

Gao et al (360), demonstrated that clear-cell renal cell carcinoma is a tumor type which is highly resistant to treatment and that the miR-200 family was involved in the process of mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET) during renal development. In their study, evidence was provided to indicate that miR-200c sensitizes ccRCC cells to sorafenib or imatinib to inhibit cell proliferation. The combined application of chemotherapeutic drugs and miR-200c may enhance the efficacy of therapy by promoting both apoptosis and autophagy (360). Another study demonstrating the enhanced effects of the combination of miRNA replacement therapy with antitumor drugs was published by Huang et al (98) with a novel transferrin-conjugated nanoparticle delivery system for synthetic miR-29b (Tf-NP-miR-29b), designed for intervention in the treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The antileukemic activity of Tf-NP-miR-29b was evaluated by measuring cell proliferation and colony-forming ability in vitro, as well as in vivo using a leukemia mouse model system. Tf-NP-miR-29b treatment significantly downregulated miR-29b targets, such as DNA methyltransferases (DNMTs), CDK6, specificity protein 1 (SP1), KIT and Fms-related tyrosine kinase 3 (FLT3), decreased AML cell growth and impaired colony formation. Mice engrafted with AML cells and then treated with Tf-NP-miR-29b had a significantly longer survival compared with the mice treated with Tf-NP-scramble or free miR-29b. Furthermore, priming AML cells with Tf-NP-miR-29b before treatment with decitabine resulted in a marked decrease in cell viability in vitro and enhanced the antileukemic activity compared to treatment with decitabine alone in vivo, suggesting that miRNA replacement therapy based on the delivery of miR-29b can be proposed for AML therapy also in combination with antitumor drugs.

Moreover, the study by Pogribny et al (361) reported that miR-7 expression directly targeted and significantly inhibited multidrug resistance-associated protein 1 (MPR1), which enhanced sensitivity to cisplatin in cisplatin-resistant breast cancer. Furthermore, an in vitro study by Suto et al (362) demonstrated that miR-7 overexpression enhanced sensitivity to cetuximab and suppressed cell proliferation after treatment with cetuximab in HCT-116 and SW480 cetuximab-resistant CRC cells. Additionally, miR-7 was found to enhance the sensitivity of non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) to paclitaxel (PTX) by promoting PTX-induced apoptosis (363). Another recent study demonstrated that the restoration of miR-143 and miR-145 expression in mutant KRAS (HCT116 and SW480) and wild-type KRAS (SW48) colon cancer cells re-sensitized the colon cancer cells to cetuximab by promoting cetuximab-mediated antibody-dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC) to induce cell death (364).

In our own laboratory, we further analyzed the possible co-admistration of temozolomide (TMZ) and the tumor suppressor pre-miR-124. This was investigated in one neuroblastoma and two glioma cell lines. For miRNA replacement, we employed transfection with pre-miR-124, since miR-124 is a powerful tumor suppressor pro-apoptotic miRNA. In order to demonstrate the activity of the combined treatment, the anti-proliferative and pro-apoptotic effects were analyzed. This set of data confirm that miRNA therapeutics can be successfully combined with chemical treatments to obtain greater effects with low doses of reagents. In conclusion, our data showed that, in addition to the combinations between antitumor drugs and antagomiR-based protocols, interesting results can be obtained by the combination of drugs with miRNA replacement agents (Fabbri et al, unpublished data).

Anti-miRNA therapy

As regards the use of anti-miRNA molecules, Costa et al (365) developed an efficient delivery system for anti-miR-21 oligonucleotides, showing preferential accumulation within brain tumors and efficient miR-21 silencing, which resulted in increased mRNA and protein levels of the miR-21 target RhoB. Decreased tumor cell proliferation and tumor size, as well as enhanced apoptosis and, to a lesser extent, the improvement of animal survival, were observed in glioblastoma tumor-bearing mice upon the systemic delivery of targeted nanoparticle-formulated anti-miR-21 oligonucleotides and exposure to the tyrosine kinase inhibitor, sunitinib (365). Although further studies are warranted to demonstrate a therapeutic benefit in the clinical context, these findings suggest that miRNA modulation by targeted nanoparticles combined with anti-angiogenic chemotherapy may hold promise as an attractive therapeutic approach. Other studies have reported that the downregulation of miR-21 can induce cell apoptosis and reverse drug resistance in cancer treatments; a synergistic antiproliferative and pro-apoptotic activity was obtained using combined treatment, based on anti-miR-21 molecules and temozolomide (366) or doxorubicin (367) in human glioma cell lines. In our own laboratory, we determined whether the treatment of T98G cells with R8-PNA-a221 or R8-PNA-a222 reverses the resistance of the cells to apoptosis induced by TMZ and found that when R8-PNA-a221 and R8-PNA-a222 are co-administered, the reversion of TMZ resistance was much more efficient as opposed to single treatments (358).

A recent study reported the co-delivery of antagomiR-10b and PTX by a liposomal delivery and showed that it efficiently inhibited tumor growth and reduced the incidence of lung metastasis. In fact, antagomiR-10b impeded the migration of 4 T1 cells in vitro, silencing miR-10b and upregulating Hoxd10 both in vitro and in vivo, while PTX elicited potent tumor cell inhibitory effects (368). The same antitumor efficacy and delivery to the tumor site may be achieved by the dual loading of miR-218 mimic (bio-drug) and temozolomide (chemo-drug) using a new delivery nanogel system approach (369).

13. Combining miRNA replacement strategies with anti-miRNAs and siRNA molecules

Xue et al (370) verified the biological activity of novel lung-targeting nanoparticles capable of delivering miRNA mimics and siRNAs to lung adenocarcinoma cells in vitro and to tumors in a genetically engineered mouse model of lung cancer based on the activation of oncogenic Kirsten rat sarcoma viral oncogene homolog (Kras) and the loss of p53 function. The therapeutic delivery of miR-34a, a p53-regulated tumor suppressor miRNA, restored the miR-34a levels in lung tumors, specifically downregulated miR-34a target genes, and attenuated tumor growth. The delivery of siRNAs targeting Kras reduced Kras gene expression and MAPK signaling, increased apoptosis and inhibited tumor growth. The combination of miR-34a and siRNA targeting Kras improved the therapeutic responses as compared to those observed with either small RNA alone, leading to tumor regression. Furthermore, nanoparticle-mediated small RNA delivery plus conventional, cisplatin-based chemotherapy prolonged survival in this model compared to chemotherapy alone. These findings demonstrate that RNA combination therapy is possible in a model of lung cancer and provide preclinical support for the use of small RNA therapies in patients who have cancer (370). A second example is that published by Nishimura et al (371) who first demonstrated that the siRNA-mediated silencing of EphA2, an ovarian cancer oncogene, resulted in the reduction of tumor growth. Second, they presented evidence that the additional inhibition of EphA2 by an miRNA further ‘boosts’ its antitumor effects. They identified miR-520d-3p as a tumor suppressor upstream of EphA2. The restoration of miR-520d-3p prominently decreased EphA2 protein levels, and suppressed tumor growth and migration/invasion both in vitro and in vivo. The dual inhibition of EphA2 in vivo using nanoliposomes loaded with miR-520d-3p and EphA2 siRNA exhibited synergistic antitumor efficiency and greater therapeutic efficacy than either monotherapy alone. These data emphasize the feasibility of combined miRNA-siRNA therapy, and will have broad implications for innovative gene silencing therapies for cancer and other diseases.

A further example in this very exciting field of investigation was reported by Hu et al (372), studying Bcl-2, a prominent member of the Bcl-2 family of proteins that regulate the induction of apoptosis. They investigated the effect of Bcl-2 siRNAs combined with miR-15a oligonucleotides on the growth of Raji cells. Following transfection of these combined reagents, the protein and mRNA levels of Bcl-2 were markedly decreased. The growth of the cells was significantly inhibited compared with the cells transfected with Bcl-2 siRNA or miR-15a alone and the apoptotic rate significantly increased. These results suggest that the combination of Bcl-2 siRNA and miR-15a oligonucleotides increases the apoptosis of Raji cells, and strongly support the concept that the combination of Bcl-2 siRNA and miR-15a may be a useful approach in the treatment of lymphoma.

Finally, an example of possible combined treatment is shown in Fig. 6, which indicates that the co-treatment of U251 cells with PNAs targeting miR-221 or miR-222 in the presence of pre-miR-124 transfection leads to a much higher level of apoptosis as opposed to singularly administered reagents (Fabbri et al, unpublished data).

14. Conclusion

MicroRNA therapeutics in cancer are based on targeting or mimicking miRNAs involved in cancer onset, progression, angiogenesis, EMT and metastasis. This strategy has been proposed several years ago and is based on the well-recognized fact that miRNAs play a key role in the post-transcriptional control of gene expression by the sequence-selective targeting of mRNAs and are key players in several biological functions and pathological processes, including cancer. In this respect, several studies have conclusively demonstrated that miRNAs are deeply involved in tumor onset and progression, either behaving as tumor-promoting miRNAs (oncomiRNAs and metastamiRNAs) or as tumor suppressor miRNAs. In general, miRNAs able to promote cancer target mRNAs coding for tumor suppressor proteins, whereas miRNAs exhibiting tumor suppressor properties usually target mRNAs coding oncoproteins. This has a very important implication in diagnosis and/or prognosis, including the recent discovery that the pattern of circulating cell-free miRNAs in serum allows us to perform molecular analyses on these non-invasive liquid biopsies. This research field has confirmed that cancer-specific miRNAs are present in extracellular body fluids, and may play a very important role in the crosstalk between cancer cells and surrounding normal cells. Interestingly, the evidence of the presence of miRNAs in serum, plasma and saliva supports their potential as an additional set of biomarkers for cancer.

This review has focused on the most promising examples potentially leading to the development of anticancer, miRNA-based therapeutic protocols. The inhibition of miRNA activity can be readily achieved by the use of miRNA inhibitors and oligomers, including RNA, DNA, DNA analogues (miRNA antisense therapy), small molecule inhibitors, miRNA sponges or through miRNA masking. On the contrary, the enhancement of miRNA function (miRNA replacement therapy) can be achieved by the use of modified miRNA mimetics and plasmids or lentiviral vectors carrying miRNA sequences. However, we should carefully consider that a single miRNA can target several mRNAs (not only tumor-associated mRNAs) and a single mRNA may contain in the 3′UTR sequence several signals for miRNA recognition. In this case, antagomiRNA-based therapy should be designed to target multiple miRNAs. MicroRNA targeting and mimicking is further complicated by the facts that, since their discovery and first characterization, the number of miRNA sequences deposited in the miRBase databases is increasing, and research studies on miRNAs in cancer have confirmed the very high complexity of the networks constituted by miRNAs and RNA targets.

One possible approach includes the combination strategies based on the co-administration of anticancer agents, as shown by the observation that i) the combined administration of different antagomiR molecules induces greater antitumor effects and ii) some anti-miR molecules can sensitize drug-resistant tumor cell lines to drug treatment. In this review, we approached two additional issues: i) the combination of miRNA replacement therapy with drug administration and ii) the combination of antagomiR and miRNA replacement therapy. One of the solid results emerging from different independent studies is the demonstration that miRNA replacement therapy can enhance the antitumor effects of the antitumor drugs.

The second important conclusion of the reviewed studies is that the combination of anti-miRNA and miRNA replacement strategies may lead to excellent results, in terms of antitumor effects. This possible combined strategy is in its infancy and very few studies are available in the literature. Proof-of-principle data are presented as examples of possible combined treatments in Fig. 6. Our data indicate that the co-treatment of U251 glioblastoma cells with PNAs targeting miR-221 or miR-222 in the presence of pre-miR-124 transfection leads to a much higher level of apoptosis as opposed to singularly administered reagents. These data further extend the possible combined antitumor treatment based on antitumor drugs and antagomiR-molecules, and present the very novel possibility of combining antagomiR and miRNA replacement therapies.

Acknowledgements

This study was funded by CIB, by COFIN-2009 and by AIRC (IG 13575: peptide nucleic acids targeting oncomiR and tumor-suppressor miRNAs: cancer diagnosis and therapy). EB is supported by an Umberto Veronesi fellowship. We would like to thank the Horizon-2020 ULTRAPLACAD (ULTRA sensitive PLAsmonic devices for early Cancer Diagnosis) n.633937 project for supporting the research on circulating miRNAs as diagnostic tools.

Abbreviations:

miRNAs or miRs

microRNAs

PNA

peptide nucleic acids

CTCs

circulating tumor cells

EMT

epithelial-mesenchymal transition

MET

mesenchymal-epithelial transition

CML

chronic myelogenous leukemia

CRC

colorectal carcinoma

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July 2016
Volume 49 Issue 1

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APA
Gambari, R., Brognara, E., Spandidos, D.A., & Fabbri, E. (2016). Targeting oncomiRNAs and mimicking tumor suppressor miRNAs: Νew trends in the development of miRNA therapeutic strategies in oncology (Review). International Journal of Oncology, 49, 5-32. https://doi.org/10.3892/ijo.2016.3503
MLA
Gambari, R., Brognara, E., Spandidos, D. A., Fabbri, E."Targeting oncomiRNAs and mimicking tumor suppressor miRNAs: Νew trends in the development of miRNA therapeutic strategies in oncology (Review)". International Journal of Oncology 49.1 (2016): 5-32.
Chicago
Gambari, R., Brognara, E., Spandidos, D. A., Fabbri, E."Targeting oncomiRNAs and mimicking tumor suppressor miRNAs: Νew trends in the development of miRNA therapeutic strategies in oncology (Review)". International Journal of Oncology 49, no. 1 (2016): 5-32. https://doi.org/10.3892/ijo.2016.3503