Blood cell origin of circulating microRNAs: a cautionary note for cancer biomarker studies.

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Cancer prevention research (Philadelphia, Pa.), Volume 5, Issue 3, p.492-497 (2012)


2012, Center-Authored Paper, Clinical Research Division, Human Biology Division, January 2012, Public Health Sciences Division


Circulating, cell-free microRNAs (miRNAs) hold great promise as a new class of cancer biomarkers due to their surprisingly high stability in plasma, association with disease states, and ease of sensitive measurement. Yet little is known about the origin of circulating miRNAs in either healthy or sick people, or what factors influence levels of circulating miRNA biomarkers. Of 79 solid tumor circulating miRNA biomarkers reported in the literature, we found that fifty-eight percent (47/79) are highly expressed in one or more blood cell type. Plasma levels of miRNA biomarkers expressed by myeloid (e.g., miR-223, miR-197, miR-574-3p, let-7a) and lymphoid (e.g., miR-150) blood cells tightly correlated with corresponding white blood cell counts. Plasma miRNA biomarkers expressed by red blood cells (e.g., miR-486-5p, miR-451, miR-92a, miR-16) could not be correlated to red cell counts due to limited variation in hematocrit in the cohort studied, but were significantly increased in hemolyzed specimens (20-30 fold plasma increase; p<0.0000001). Finally, in a patient undergoing autologous hematopoietic cell transplantation, plasma levels of myeloid- and lymphoid-expressed miRNAs (miR-223 and miR-150, respectively) tracked closely with changes in corresponding blood counts. We present evidence that blood cells are a major contributor to circulating miRNA, and that perturbations in blood cell counts and hemolysis can alter plasma miRNA biomarker levels by up to 50-fold. Given that a majority of reported circulating miRNA cancer biomarkers are highly expressed in blood cells, we suggest caution in interpretation of such results as they may reflect a blood cell-based phenomenon rather than a cancer-specific origin.