The miR-181a microRNA may turn off two genes and lead to the development of high-grade serous ovarian cancer (HGSOC), researchers reported in Nature Communications. The finding is significant because not much is known about how ovarian cancer develops and it’s difficult to detect in its earlier stages.

Researchers found that women who had low levels of miR-181a in their ovarian cancer tumors lived an average of four years longer than those with higher levels. The researchers then engineered human fallopian tube cells with ovarian cancer mutations to contain high levels of miR-181a and used them in mouse models. They again found those with excess miR-181a formed aggressive ovarian cancer that metastasized to the mice’s intestines.

The researchers said that they hope that miR-181a may one day be used for early detection as a blood test, although further studies are needed.

“Our data suggest that miR-181a has potential as a biomarker for early detection of high-grade serous ovarian cancer,” they reported. “Studies will need to investigate miR-181a as an early detection biomarker in prospective clinical samples such as serum or plasma taken prior to HGSOC diagnosis.”