Characterization of amplifiable, circulating RNA in plasma and its potential as a tool for cancer diagnostics.


Several recent reports have described the detection of circulating, cancer-related RNA molecules in serum or plasma from cancer patients, but little is known about the biology of this extracellular RNA. We aimed to determine how RNA is protected against degradation in serum, to optimize RNA isolation from large volumes of serum, and to test our optimized assays for serum-based cancer detection.

We used quantitative reverse transcription-PCR (QRT-PCR) analysis to investigate the isolation and biology of extracellular plasma RNA. We then examined the presence of amplifiable RNA transcripts in plasma and serum from controls and from patients with esophageal cancer and malignant melanoma.

We found that extracellular RNA in plasma is highly degraded and can be isolated most efficiently by guanidinium-phenol extraction followed by precipitation. Extracellular RNA is stable in serum for up to 3 h but is destroyed immediately by addition of detergents. Extracellular RNA can be captured on 0.2 microm filters, allowing concentration of RNA from several milliliters of plasma. When we concentrated RNA from up to 4 mL of serum, detection of cancer-related transcripts in serum from cancer patients and controls was infrequent and inconsistent.

Extracellular RNA is most likely protected within protein or lipid vesicles, possibly apoptotic bodies, which can be disrupted by detergents. Despite optimizing many aspects of plasma RNA detection, we were unable to reproducibly detect cancer-related transcripts. Our data suggest that measurement of circulating RNA may not be a good approach to early cancer diagnosis.

  • Bigbee WL
  • El-Hefnawy T
  • Godfrey TE
  • Kelly L
  • Kirkwood JM
  • Luketich JD
  • Raja S
PubMed ID
Appears In
Clin Chem, 2004, 50 (3)