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Can circulating miRNAs live up to the promise of being minimal invasive biomarkers in clinical settings?

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MicroRNAs have been discussed as non‐ or minimal invasive biomarkers with a remarkable extracellular stability. Despite a multitude of studies in basic research, there are only few independent validation studies on blood‐born miRNAs as disease markers. Toward clinical applications numerous obstacles still need to be overcome. They are of technical origin but also fundamentally associated with the source and the nature of miRNAs. Here, we emphasize on potential confounding factors, the nature and the source of miRNAs. We recently showed that age and gender could influence the pattern of circulating miRNAs. On the cellular level, the miRNA pattern differs between plasma and serum preparations. On the molecular level, one has to differentiate between extracellular miRNAs that are encapsulated in microvesicles or bound to proteins or high‐density lipoproteins. Using whole blood as source for miRNAs helps to minimize miRNA expression changes due to environmental influences and allows attributing miRNA changes to their cells of origin like B‐cells and T‐cells. Moreover, unambiguous annotation and differentiation from other noncoding RNAs can be challenging. Even not all miRNAs deposited in miRBase do necessarily represent true miRNAs, just a fraction of miRNAs in the reference database have been experimentally validated by Northern blotting. Functional evidence for a true miRNA should be obtained by cloning the precursor miRNA and by subsequent detection of the processed mature form in host cells. Surprisingly, attempts to finally confirm a true miRNA are frequently postponed until evidence has been established for a likely value as biomarker. WIREs RNA 2016, 7:148–156. doi: 10.1002/wrna.1320 This article is categorized under: RNA in Disease and Development > RNA in Disease

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