/ Modified jan 28, 2014 4:25 p.m.

UA's RNA Research Helping Scientists with Cancer Diagnosis

New developments in molecular biology make it possible to measure messenger RNA in single cells.

(VIDEO: AZPM)

Scientists at the University of Arizona have sequenced the entire messenger RNA of a brain cell.

This research, which was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has exciting implications for cancer research, and for studies of organ functioning and disease.

Dr. David Galbraith, a member of the UA research team, said DNA is contained within the nucleus of a cell. DNA transcribes, or reads out, messages onto the messenger RNA. The messenger RNA, then, "Leaves the nucleus and goes out into the cell where it it used to construct parts of the cell," he explained.

With new developments in molecular biology, scientists have been able to measure the messenger RNA in single cells. This is the first time, Galbraith said, that anyone has been able to go inside the nucleus of the cell to measure the messenger RNA, and furthermore, to determine its type.

Galbraith, who is jointly appointed to the BIO5 Institute and the UA's School of Plant Sciences, called this work "extremely unique."

In addition to measuring and identifying the messenger RNA, Galbraith and research team member Roger Lasken with the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, Calif. were able to introduce a florescent dye into the cell. Tom Doetschman, with the BIO5 Institute and the UA Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, is using this later technique to advance his own work on pancreatic cancer.

Doetschman said it can be years between a cell turning cancerous and a person developing pancreatic cancer. Thus, it is important to understand what is happening in those early stages if one is to be able to understand and prevent pancreatic cancer.

"In a tumor environment...you have many, many kinds of cells contributing to the formation, but the actual cell that is going to become the cancer cell, it is very difficult to isolate that cell from all of the other different kinds of cells," he said. "Making those cells fluorescent makes them easy to identify, which is what Galbraith and Lasken managed to do.

That technology, Galbraith said, has great potential for cancer research.

"If you have normal tissue and you are trying to find the individual cells within which the changes are occurring," he said. "And so these technologies that we have put together enable us to pick out the individual cells at the point they are changing."

Furthermore, with this new technique, researchers may be able to determine which, if any, genes are turned on at the moment a cell becomes cancerous. This has broad implications for cancer research and for furthering personalized medicine, in which genes are used to determine a person's potential for disease.

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