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RNA Institute Researchers Develop Enhanced View of RNA to Treat Disease at its Origins

Public-Private Partnership with BD Advances Institute’s Vision

Post-doctoral fellow Irfan Khan, whose work at UAlbany's The RNA Institute is being funded by medical technology company BD, operates a fluorescence-activated cell sorter in the Institute's labs. (Photo by Mark Schmidt)
ALBANY, N.Y. (March 31, 2015) — A research agreement with one of the world’s leading medical technology companies is funding researchers at the University at Albany’s RNA Institute to develop technology that identifies cells containing specific RNAs that could be vital to combatting disease.

This technology is important for the development of RNA-based therapies and for scientists to gain a molecular understanding of RNA’s role in disease processes and normal cell changes, such as those during development and aging.

The $200,000 award from BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company) funds a post-doctoral fellow who is working with assistant professors Maksim Royzen and Mehmet Yigit to create fluorescent chemical tags. These tags allow cells containing specific RNA that are implicated in disease to be sorted and then studied using fluorescent imaging technologies.

RNA Researchers Yigit & Rozen
RNA Institute researchers Maksim Royzen and Mehmet Yigit, who are creating chemical tags to detect RNA within cells and use it to treat disease and injuries. (Photo by Paul Miller)

One of the key instruments being utilized by Royzen and Yigit in the development of this technology is a fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS), typically used by genomic scientists to sort cells on the basis of proteins — an easier task, because, within cells, proteins are abundant, while RNA can be extremely scarce by comparison.

Due to their cellular abundance, proteins are easier to study and therefore for decades have been the target of drug development for treating disease. However, proteins are cell products of RNA molecules that cause disease symptoms. RNA, being in control of protein production, has the promise of treating and curing disease at its origins.

“The challenge of harnessing the promise of RNA therapeutics is like finding the needle in the haystack by making RNA visible enough to be detected using fluorescent tags — The RNA Institute is creating this technology,” said Paul F. Agris, the Institute’s director.

The technology can be applied to cancer as a diagnostic for visualizing the location and movement of RNA, or as drugs that bind to them in tissues, cells, and organs. According to Agris, researchers can use these RNA fluorescent tags, designed to recognize a specific RNA linked to disease, in order to locate the diseased cells within a mixture. They then can collect enough of the “needles in a haystack” using FACS to study the characteristics of the RNA and how it relates to disease mechanisms, a critical first step in drug discovery.

High-resolution confocal microscopy then can be applied to show the precise location and movement of the RNA within the cells. Using other advanced equipment in The RNA Institute’s Advanced Computational Lab, researchers can see how the RNA responds to chemical signals in the cell. For example, a therapeutic can be added to the cell to determine how well it treats a malignancy.

Institute biologists who see promise in the use of Royzen’s and Yigit’s chemical tagging tool include Dr. Sally Temple, with her work on stem cell development; Melinda Larsen studying salivary gland differentiation; Ben Szaro researching the regeneration of nerve cells to mitigate spinal cord injuries; and Cara Pager to find better treatments for the hepatitis C virus, the foremost cause of liver disease. The technology will also positively impact imaging for MRI diagnostics.

BD will have proprietary rights to license any research results and inventions that arise from this work, including Royzen’s and Yigit’s groundbreaking chemical tag technology.

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