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Small noncoding RNAs circulating in the blood may serve as signaling molecules because of their ability to carry out a variety of cellular functions. We have previously described tRNA- and YRNA-derived small RNAs circulating as components of larger complexes in the blood of humans and mice; the characteristics of these small RNAs imply specific processing, secretion, and physiological regulation. In this study, we have asked if changes in the serum abundance of these tRNA and YRNA fragments are associated with a diagnosis of cancer. We used deep sequencing and informatics analysis to catalog small RNAs in the sera of breast cancer cases and normal controls. 5' tRNA halves and YRNA fragments are abundant in both groups, but we found that a breast cancer diagnosis is associated with changes in levels of specific subtypes. This prompted us to look at existing sequence datasets of serum small RNAs from 42 breast cancer cases, taken at the time of diagnosis. We find significant changes in the levels of specific 5' tRNA halves and YRNA fragments associated with clinicopathologic characteristics of the cancer. Although these findings do not establish causality, they suggest that circulating 5' tRNA halves and YRNA fragments with known cellular functions may participate in breast cancer syndromes and have potential as circulating biomarkers. Larger studies with multiple types of cancer are needed to adequately evaluate their potential use for the development of noninvasive cancer screening.
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