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16.02.2017 - Researchers discover stable genetic markers in Ötzi

In a recent study, researchers at the University of Luxembourg, the Saarland University, and the EURAC Research center in Bozen managed to isolate and identify stable microRNA biomarkers in the 5300-year old glacier mummy “Ötzi”.

MicroRNA molecules are very small pieces of ribonucleic acid (RNA) which are essential for the regulation of genes. Although these molecules are very stable in human tissues, prior to this study it was unclear whether they could still be found in human tissues after thousands of years. Dr. Stephanie Kreis of the University of Luxembourg, Professors Andreas Keller and Eckart Meese of Saarland University and Professor Albert Zink and Frank Maixner of EURAC Research in Bozen accepted the challenge to discover this.

The scientists took samples from Ötzi's skin, stomach, and stomach contents. "It was a challenge to extract this genetic material in significant quantities and sufficient quality, and to assess and quantify it with the newest, very precise methods," reports Dr Kreis, who isolated the microRNAs at the University of Luxembourg. She adds: “Some of the molecules that were found are predominantly present in ancient tissues. On the other hand, some of the biomarkers that are well-known today were not found in Ötzi.” According to Professor Zink from EURAC Research, the microRNAs are the next important class of molecules from Ötzi to receive intensive examination.

"Our investigation proves that we can analyse microRNA even after thousands of years," explains Andreas Keller, Professor of Clinical Bioinformatics at Saarland University who coordinated the study.

Biomarkers are biological attributes that can give doctors or researchers important clues about the health status or illnesses of a patient. Scientists are placing great hope in microRNA a new type of biomarker notable for their very high level of stability.

A new tool for clinical care?

Professor Meese, Head of the Institute of Human Genetics at Saarland University, explains why the stability of these biomarkers matters for people today: "It is vital for clinical applications. Clearly the potential of microRNA is much greater than we previously thought. We still don't know enough about how these molecules influence genes or biochemical reaction pathways. When we investigate this further, it's possible that microRNA will become the new stars in therapy. Until then, however, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us," concludes Professor Keller.

The University of Luxembourg is one of the few institutions in the region working with microRNA. Dr. Kreis and her research team analyzes the molecules in cell systems and in blood samples of cancer patients to find out exactly what role microRNA play for instance in skin cancer (melanoma) and whether microRNA can be used to predict cancer.

A number of facts have been scientifically proven about the glacier mummy, known as "the Iceman" or "Ötzi," found in the Ötztal Alps (South Tyrol) in 1991. Image techniques showed a degeneration in his lumbar spine and a fatal arrow wound in his left shoulder. DNA analyses showed that Ötzi was lactose intolerant, had brown eyes and blood type 0.