Advancements in medical science have been unprecedented in the past few decades, enabling people to live longer, healthier lives. Old age, of course, comes with its own set of issues, but scientists are now attempting to create medicines that will prevent onset of age-related diseases before they even manifest. And one way to do that is to manipulate two microRNA molecules that control inflammation, which is linked to several chronic conditions. This groundbreaking research has been published in the journal Immunity.

MicroRNAs or miRNAs are small non-coding RNA molecules found in our cells. Their primary responsibility is gene regulation, but under certain circumstances, such as mutations, they also cause diseases. In fact, there is a publicly available database that documents all human diseases that are caused by microRNA dysregulation.

The researchers of this particular study wanted to further analyze the potential role of miRNAs in human diseases. On working with mice models that are genetically and anatomically close to humans, the scientists found two microRNAs that controlled inflammation. Specifically, they found that genetically removing a microRNA from a mouse caused spontaneous chronic inflammation that subsequently led to diseases such as cancer or an autoimmune disorder. The mice eventually died because of these conditions.

These microRNAs are produced by certain types of immune cells that have been previously implicated in autoimmune disorders. These cells called T follicular helper cells are known to produce antibodies that attack the body’s own tissues, causing chronic inflammation. The microRNAs in question have been found to promote and control these T cells.

But they also found another type of microRNA, the lack of which doesn’t cause inflammation. In other words, the researchers found that one microRNA promotes diseases, while the other prevents it.

"Now we know which cells in the body we need to get miRNA inhibitors delivered to if we want to reduce chronic inflammatory conditions," said lead researcher Ryan O'Connell in a statement. Conducting human research is next on his agenda.

The big question, however, is: Will inhibiting these microRNAs reduce the inflammation indicators and thus eliminate the fatal diseases caused by such inflammation?

Chronic inflammation is now viewed as arising from an immune system that’s out of control, leading to the development of certain conditions, including diabetes, lupus, arthritis, obesity, cancer, neurodegeneration, and cardiovascular disease, along with a shortened life span.

Since chronic inflammation is not easily detected by doctors, discovering this underlying cause can be quite a challenge. But there are biomarkers such as elevated levels of cytokines or antibodies that are indicators of inflammation.

"Everyone waits until they have bad symptoms to go see the doctor," O’Connell said. "However, the goal of medicine is to take a person who is not sick yet and be able to analyze something we can test that can help predict whether they're going to be sick in the future — and take appropriate measures to prevent terrible outcomes."

Source: O'Connell R, et al. Immunity. 2014.