The era of RNA research

The possibility of curing fatal diseases, such as cancer, may be closer than we think.

Dr. Robert Delong, associate professor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University, and his group of students are interested in Ribonucleic Acids (RNA) targeting, a very rapidly developing field in science.

“One of the things we are particularly interested in is a new branch of science called RNA nanotechnology and therapeutics,” said Delong, who was recently elected as the associate editor of “Reviews in Nanoscience and Nanotechnology.”

Like DNA, RNA can be manipulated and designed to produce a variety of different nanostructures. RNA, however, is a more flexible structure that can fold into numerous complicated configurations.

Chemists all over the world are producing nanomaterials out of almost all of the different elements in the periodic table. The nanomaterials made out of each of the elements can be a completely different beast; physically, chemically and biologically.

“Each one of the nanomaterials is like a different animal at the zoo,” Delong said. “Whereas you might have to cage the tiger, we want to have the pink flamingos out stretching their necks because they’re beautiful birds.”

Dr. Robert Delong working in lab

Like DNA, RNA can be manipulated and designed to produce a variety of different nanostructures.

It’s possible that by combining nanomaterials with RNA, it provides a key to curing some cancer. Since these materials have never been created before in nature, scientists don’t know what they will do to life and life’s processes at the cellular and molecular levels.

“So the question now is, when the nanomaterials go into the cells, how do they affect the molecules, for example the many types of the RNA, within them?” said Delong. “How do they respond to the tiger versus the flamingo?”

A renewal grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute gives Delong and his team the means to test different nanoparticles on various cancer cells. In fact, Delong incorporates these types of experiments into his graduate and undergraduate level curriculum.

“We’re taking these different nanomaterials derived from the bio-elements and we’re sprinkling them on cancer cells and trying to figure out how the cancer cell responds,” Delong said.

There are roughly 100,000 different proteins in our body and one of the biggest questions in molecular biology is how nanomaterials affect proteins and RNA in our cells.

Experts are excited to think that these nanomaterials could lead to a new wave of drug development. They believe nanomaterials could have the potential to revolutionize drug discovery and drug delivery.

“Biotechnology, it constantly seeks to improve health and the human condition,” Delong said. “At the end of the day we want to create things that can help make a difference in the world.”