RNA activation

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RNA activation (RNAa) is a small RNA-guided and Argonaute (Ago)-dependent gene regulation phenomenon in which promoter-targeted short double-stranded RNAs (dsRNAs) induce target gene expression at the transcriptional/epigenetic level. RNAa was first reported in a 2006 PNAS paper by Li et al.[1] who also coined the term "RNAa" as a contrast to RNA interference (RNAi)[1] to describe such gene activation phenomenon. dsRNAs that trigger RNAa have been termed small activating RNA (saRNA).[2] Since the initial discovery of RNAa in human cells, many other groups have made similar observations in different mammalian species including human, non-human primates, rat and mice,[3][4][5][6] plant [7] and C. elegans,[8][9] suggesting that RNAa is an evolutionarily conserved mechanism of gene regulation.

RNAa can be generally classified into two categories: exogenous and endogenous. Exogenous RNAa is triggered by artificially designed saRNAs which target non-coding sequences such as the promoter[1] and the 3’ terminus [10] of a gene and these saRNAs can be chemically synthesized [1] or expressed as short hairpin RNA (shRNA).[4] Whereas for endogenous RNAa, upregulation of gene expression is guided by naturally occurring endogenous small RNAs such as miRNA in mammalian cells [11][12] and C. elegans,[9] and 22G RNA in C. elegans.[8]  

Mechanism of RNAa[edit]

The molecular mechanism of RNAa is not fully understood. Similar to RNAi, it has been shown that mammalian RNAa requires members of the Ago clade of Argonaute proteins, particularly Ago2,[1][13] but possesses kinetics distinct from RNAi.[14] In contrast to RNAi, promoter-targeted saRNAs induce prolonged activation of gene expression associated with epigenetic changes.[15] It is currently suggested that saRNAs are first loaded and processed by an Ago protein to form an Ago-RNA complex which is then guided by the RNA to its promoter target. The target can be a non-coding transcript overlapping the promoter[6][13] or the chromosomal DNA.[15][16] The RNA-loaded Ago then recruits other proteins such as RHA, also known as nuclear DNA helicase II, and CTR9 to form an RNA-induced transcriptional activation (RITA) complex. RITA can directly interacts with RNAP II to stimulate transcription initiation and productive transcription elongation which is related to increased ubiquitination of H2B.[17][18]

Endogenous RNAa[edit]

In 2008, Place et al. identified targets for miRNA miR-373 on the promoters of several human genes and found that introduction of miR-373 mimics into human cells induced the expression of its predicted target genes. This study provided the first example that RNAa could be mediated by naturally occurring non-coding RNA (ncRNA).[11] In 2011, Huang et al. further demonstrated in mouse cells that endogenous RNAa mediated by miRNAs functions in a physiological context and is possibly exploited by cancer cells to gain a growth advantage.[12] Since then, a number of miRNAs have been shown to upregulate gene expression by targeting gene promoters [19][20][21][22] or enhancers,[23] thereby, exerting important biological roles. A good example is miR-551b-3p which is overexpressed in ovarian cancer due to amplification.[21] By targeting the promoter of STAT3 to increase its transcription, miR-551b-3p confers to ovarian cancer cells resistance to apoptosis and a proliferative advantage.[21]

In C. elegans hypodermal seam cells, the transcription of lin-4 miRNA is positively regulated by lin-4 itself which binds to a conserved lin-4 complementary element in its promoter, constituting a positive autoregulatory loop.[9][24]

In C. elegans, Argonaute CSR-1 interacts with 22G small RNAs derived from RNA-dependent RNA polymerase and antisense to germline-expressed transcripts to protect these mRNAs from Piwi-piRNA mediated silencing via promoting epigenetic activation.[25][26]

It is currently unknown how widespread gene regulation by endogenous RNAa is in mammalian cells. Studies have shown that both miRNAs [27] and Ago proteins (Ago1) [28] bind to numerous sites in human genome, especially promoter regions, to exert a largely positive effect on gene transcription.    

Applications of RNAa[edit]

RNAa has been used to study gene function in lieu of vector-based gene overexpression.[29] Studies have demonstrated RNAa in vivo and its potential therapeutic applications in treating cancer and non-cancerous diseases.[4][30][31][32][33][34][35][36]

In June 2016, UK-based MiNA Therapeutics announced the initiation of a phase I trial of the first-ever saRNA drug MTL-CEBPA in patients with liver cancer, in an attempt to activate CEBPA gene.[37][38]


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