Feds back NYIT professors on RNA-sequencing quest

Sequential secrets: A National Institutes of Health grant will support NYIT researchers exploring new RNA-sequencing methods, with an eye toward identifying environmental triggers for cancer and other serious conditions.

Diverse disciplines are coming together at NYIT, where a multi-year National Institutes of Health grant is fueling next-level RNA research – and, possibly, opening a new front in the war against cancer.

Two New York Institute of Technology faculty members, assistant professors of life sciences and computer sciences, will combine their skills under a three-year, $568,000 Cutting Edge Basic Research award from the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

Their mission: develop tools that can detect and describe RNA sequencing modifications – and reveal their potential links to a rogues’ gallery of major maladies.

Shenglong Zhang, a pioneer of RNA-based Next Generation Sequencing technologies (millions or billions of DNA strands sequenced in parallel), and Wenjia Li, a cyber-physical systems expert known for his cybersecurity and networking chops, will focus on creating sequencing tools for ribonucleic acid analysis in human, animal and bacterial cells, shedding new light on how environmental and biological stimuli affect the human genome.

In short: Our environment may be killing us, and the researchers are diving deep into RNA to find out.

“Damage to our DNA and RNA caused by a toxic environment is incremental and not observable,” Li noted. “Nevertheless, it may be inheritable. Recent studies in epigenetics provide a lot of evidence that environmental change may be leaving its mark on our genome.”

Wenjia Li: The computer guy.

So that nefarious environment might not only be killing us – we may be passing along the damage to our kids. But epigenetics (the study of cellular and physiological variations caused not by DNA but environment-triggered genes) may only be the beginning for Zhang and Li.

The professors will attempt to identify and measure RNA modifications – cellular signals of environmental changes already linked to breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity and other chronic conditions.

More than 100 RNA modifications have been identified to date, according to NYIT, and many more are waiting to be discovered, once the right tools exist to discern and analyze how these chemical changes function within the cell – and how these changes affect us, and possibly our progeny.

Shenglong Zhang: The life sciences guy

The 100-plus known RNA modifications are a good running start for Zhang and Li, who will wield some serious science – mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography and a proprietary RNA sequencing algorithm, for starters – to uncover new ones.

“One of the advantages of our method is that it can identify, locate and quantify a broad spectrum of RNA modifications that other methods are not capable of,” Zhang noted.

Ultimately, the NIH grant could help create new RNA-based tools that “explore potential environmental and biological factors in serious diseases like cancer and diabetes,” according to NYIT.

Nada Anid, dean of NYIT’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences, said the federal funding will not only benefit the science of Next Generation Sequencing, but have a positive ripple effect on other NYIT graduate and undergraduate programs.

“The development of new sequencing tools provides an ideal opportunity for student research and skills training across multiple disciplines,” the dean said in a statement, adding such pursuits prepare students “for the U.S. science- and technology-based economy.”