Diagnosing prostate cancer could become much easier, thanks to original technology from Rockefeller University that allows scientists to "paint" individual tumors under a microscope.

The new tool relies upon tracking tiny snippets of genetic material called microRNAs (miRNA) and is featured in today's edition of the Journal of Clinical Investigation (JCI).

MicroRNAs are like purses or wristwatches - accessories that can serve a precise function in cancer. Some encourage cancer growth, while others can turn on genes that promote metastasis or the movement of a tumor from one spot in the body to another.

And like Prada and Swatch, different types of cancer often carry their own distinct brand of microRNA,

There's an ongoing trend in medicine to capitalize on these preferences and profile tumors by their microRNAs. If doctors are successful, it could speed up diagnosis, improve treatment strategies, and ultimately prevent death.

In a crucial first step, Dr. Thomas Tuschl, Ph.D., and his colleagues developed colorful labels for different brands of miRNA.

Simply called multicolor miRNA FISH, this technique was able to distinguish two types of skin cancer within the same biological sample, which is a major achievement for the field.

While skin cancer is already easy to diagnose, their findings open the door to new screening methods for more challenging varieties, like prostate cancer. With over 200,000 new cases each year, prostate cancer is the 2nd most prevalent type found in men.

"Prostate cancer is often detected as a multifocal [i.e. many points of origin] disease represented by several morphologically distinct microscopic tumors," wrote personalized medicine expert Dr. Gennadi Glinsky of Standford University. A commentary from Glinsky was also published in this issue of JCI.

Glinsky pointed out that current analysis of prostate cancer samples requires arduous examination of thousands of individual cells in each lesion.

The new technique would expedite this process. According to Glinsky, the researchers also scored points in the prostate cancer field by developing markers for two miRNAs - miR-205 and miR-375 - that are implicated in a dangerous, castration-resistant form of disease.

"This work is likely to advance the development of RNA-based therapeutics and next-generation individualized nanomedicine," wrote Glinsky.

Sources: Renwick N, Cekan P, Masry PA, McGeary SE. Multicolor microRNA FISH effectively differentiates tumor types. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2013.

Glinsky GV. RNA-guided diagnostics and therapeutics for next-generation individualized nanomedicine. The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2013.