Deciphering the functional landscape of circular RNAs (circRNA) across various cancer types
Light blue digital illustration of DNA strand

Deciphering the functional landscape of circular RNAs (circRNA) across various cancer types 

Researcher: Peter Her
Institution: University Health Network – Princess Margaret Cancer Centre
Mentors: Dr. Housheng Hansen He
Consortium: PM2C
Program: MOHCCN Health Informatics & Data Science Awards


Objective: Our objective is to analyze a molecule called circular RNA (circRNA) that has received little attention so far to understand its role in how cancers start, grow, and why certain patients respond less effectively to therapy.

Previous research: For a long time, researchers have primarily focused on studying how permanent changes in our DNA, our genetic makeup, lead to diseases like cancer. However, solely examining DNA might not provide us with a complete understanding. While DNA carries the essential information to maintain our bodies, it is RNA that performs most of the work by reading and translating parts of DNA. Although a significant portion of our genetic information can be read, only a small fraction is translated into the molecules necessary for life. As a result, most RNAs fall into a category called noncoding RNA (ncRNA), which do not produce these crucial molecules. Several types of ncRNAs have been found in cancer and have different roles, like influencing how cancer cells respond to treatment and grow. One such type of ncRNA is circRNA, which possesses unique properties and functions. Compared to most RNAs, circRNAs are highly stable and specific to different tissues. There is also increasing evidence suggesting the involvement of circRNAs in cancer. Owing to their distinct features, circRNAs hold the potential to aid in cancer detection and serve as promising targets for new therapeutic approaches.

Project methods: I will first apply computational methods to identify and measure the presence of circRNAs in patient samples from cancer groups in the Marathon of Hope Cancer Centres Network. Following this, I will perform a series of analyses that combine different types of additional data to investigate the specific role of the identified circRNAs and their influence on the development and progression of these cancers.

Impact and relevance to cancer: While cancer research has predominantly focused on DNA changes, exploring alterations in ncRNAs represents a significant shift in the field. To gain a comprehensive understanding, we must consider all the different components that contribute to the larger picture. To this end, understanding how circRNAs affect cancer initiation, progression, and treatment response is vital to interpreting the full landscape of the disease. 


“I am elated to receive the MOHCCN data science and health informatics award, particularly for my research at the intersection of computer science and biology. Exploring the intricate role of circular RNAs in cancer opens new avenues for precision medicine and personalized therapies. This award further solidifies my commitment to advance computational methods to unravel the complexities of cancer biology and contribute to the advancement of cancer research and patient care.” – Peter Her, HI&DS Award Recipient

“Circular RNA represents the largest subclass of noncoding RNA and plays important roles in biology and cancer. The identification and quantification of circular RNA in the MOHCCN cohorts has great potential to identify clinically relevant ones, which may serve as novel biomarkers and therapeutic targets.” – Dr. Housheng Hansen He, Mentor