Distinguishing the immunostimulatory properties of noncoding RNAs expressed in cancer cells

Antoine Tanne, Luciana R. Muniz, Anna Puzio-Kuter, Katerina I. Leonova, Andrei V. Gudkov, David T. Ting, Rémi Monasson, Simona Cocco, Arnold J. Levine, Nina Bhardwaj, Benjamin D. Greenbaum

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Recent studies have demonstrated abundant transcription of a set of noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs) preferentially within tumors as opposed to normal tissue. Using an approach from statistical physics, we quantify global transcriptome-wide motif use for the first time, to our knowledge, in human and murine ncRNAs, determining that most have motif use consistent with the coding genome. However, an outlier subset of tumor-associated ncRNAs, typically of recent evolutionary origin, has motif use that is often indicative of pathogenassociated RNA. For instance, we show that the tumor-associated human repeat human satellite repeat II (HSATII) is enriched in motifs containing CpG dinucleotides in AU-rich contexts that most of the human genome and human adapted viruses have evolved to avoid. We demonstrate that a key subset of these ncRNAs functions as immunostimulatory "self-agonists" and directly activates cells of the mononuclear phagocytic system to produce proinflammatory cytokines. These ncRNAs arise from endogenous repetitive elements that are normally silenced, yet are often very highly expressed in cancers. We propose that the innate response in tumors may partially originate from direct interaction of immunogenic ncRNAs expressed in cancer cells with innate pattern recognition receptors, and thereby assign a previously unidentified danger-associated function to a set of dark matter repetitive elements. These findings potentially reconcile several observations concerning the role of ncRNA expression in cancers and their relationship to the tumor microenvironment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15154-15159
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number49
StatePublished - 8 Dec 2015


  • Cancer immunology
  • Genome evolution
  • Noncoding RNA


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