Sergei Nechaev, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), has received the first installment on a three-year award worth $521,000 for a project titled “Transcriptome Profiling of Highly Degraded Specimens through Global analysis of Short RNA Fragments.” The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institutes of Health.
According to Nechaev (right), the ribonucleic acid (RNA) that is produced by the DNA in human cells plays a role in determining if and when a cell might become tumorigenic, or cancerous. And finding out what RNA is present in a given tumor can tell researchers what genes were active in making the cell cancerous—and indicate the best possible treatment.
“The problem we face in studying cell RNA is that fresh biopsy samples collected from patients are not always available for research,” explained Nechaev. “And archived samples that were obtained in the past may no longer have good quality RNA. So this grant supports the development of a technology that will seek to overcome this problem by developing a way to detect RNA even in poor-quality samples.”
Should such new technology be developed, says Nechaev, it would enable researchers to use genetic samples collected from patients many years ago in cancer research today: “The use of this technology would not be limited to cancer samples. I have already received a request to analyze RNA from animal specimens that have been stored in museums for many years.”
Nechaev conducts research in a field known as epigenetics. Researchers studying epigenetics explore the mechanisms that regulate gene expression and the activation and deactivation of specific genes. Understanding better how the human body can turn genes on and off during growth and aging and in response to its environment has important implications for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, and diabetes.
This epigenetics project is one of many projects ongoing at the UND SMHS that fall under the category of clinical and translational research: research that “translates” discoveries made at the laboratory bench for clinical implementation to directly benefit patients. The SMHS has made clinical and translational research a priority in recent years, a fact that bodes well for the citizens of North Dakota who will benefit from the increasingly rapid application of discoveries made in the laboratory to the treatment of their ailments.