Radiation is used to treat two out of every three cancer patients, but scientists don’t fully understand why the body responds the way it does to the therapy.

A new study published Monday in Nature Communications shows that part of the answer might lie within microRNAs, a type of molecule that can alter how genes are expressed. The research found that one type of microRNA, called miR-34, is generally inactive in cells.

That goes against a long-held assumption in the cell biology field that if microRNA was present in a cell, it was controlling genes or doing some other work at all times.

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“We found that irradiating the cells, or treating them with radiation, which causes DNA damage, ‘turns on’ the miR-34 that is sitting and waiting,” said lead researcher Dr. Joanne Weidhaas of University of California, Los Angeles.

The researchers are not quite sure how the mechanism helps make radiation therapy work, Weidhaas said, and need to study it more closely.

“It does suggest that miR-34 may be a very important biomarker and potentially even a target to help us personalize radiation treatment, and even cancer therapy, in the future,” Weidhaas said. The research team is continuing to study how miR-34 plays a role in the body’s response to DNA damage.

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