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Using fluorescence to help find and treat disease at its genesis

Courtesy University at Albany 

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. The pioneering effort aims for new RNA-based therapies and an enhanced molecular understanding of RNA’s role in disease processes and normal cell changes, such as those occurring 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 which are implicated in disease to be sorted and then studied using fluorescent imaging technologies. 

One of the key instruments employed by Royzen and Yigit in the development of this technology is a fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS). The instrument is typically used by life 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 more readily studied and therefore for decades have been the target of drug development for treating disease. However, aberrant as well as normal proteins are cell products of RNA molecules. It follows then that 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 a needle in a haystack,” said Paul F. Agris, the Institute’s director. “The challenge is making RNA visible enough to be detected using fluorescent tags. The RNA Institute is creating this technology.” 

The technology can be applied to cancer as a diagnostic for visualizing the location and movement of RNA as drugs bind to them in tissues, cells, and organs. According to Agris, researchers can use these RNA fluorescent tags 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 can then be applied by Institute researchers to show the precise location and movement of the RNA within the cells. Using other advanced equipment in the 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 Sally Temple, working 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, seeking 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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