Their findings were published June 6 in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They are expected to be published in the print edition of the journal later this month.

Yong Li, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and his research team led by postdoctoral fellows Xiaodong Ma and Munish Kumar removed a non-coding RNA molecule called MicroRNA 21 (miR-21) from mice in one group.

“In virtually all types of cancer, miR-21 is found to be present at elevated levels,” Li said. “We believe it is essential to the growth of cancers.”

Skin tumors were induced in the group without the molecule and in a group with the molecule. Mice without miR-21 had fewer tumors over the course of the 30-week study. One mouse even remained tumor free.

These results, Li said, lead the researchers to believe that removing miR-21 increases the body’s ability to suppress tumors.

“The cancer research community is increasingly aware the importance of the surroundings around tumor cells,” Li said. “Our ongoing study of miR-21 involves looking at how this molecule contributes to tumor environment.”

The study indicates the serendipitous aspect of bench science, Li said. It was funded in part by the American Heart Association and the UofL Diabetes and Obesity Center – not by a cancer research agency or organization.

“We began our work in 2008 with the hypothesis that miR-21 plays a role in cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” he said, noting that his team’s research and reports from other groups now suggests that it doesn’t.

“Funding basic research is important because you never know where science will take you. It is clear from our research that miR-21 is taking us a bit closer to understanding tumor formation.”