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A Novel Technique Nudges Genes Into Activity

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have found a new technique that employs RNA, a tiny chemical cousin of DNA, to turn on genes could lead to therapeutics// for conditions in which nudging a gene awake would help alleviate disease. This gene-activating method provides researchers with a novel research tool to investigate the role that genes play in human health.

In a paper appearing online at Nature Chemical Biology and in an upcoming edition of the journal, lead author Dr. Bethany Janowski, assistant professor of pharmacology at UT Southwestern, and her colleagues describe how they activated certain genes in cultured cells using strands of RNA to perturb the delicately balanced mixture of proteins that surround chromosomal DNA, proteins that control whether genes are turned on or off.

Dr. David Corey, professor of pharmacology and the paper’s senior author, said the results are significant because they demonstrate the most effective and consistent method to date for coaxing genes into making the proteins that carry out all of life’s functions – a process formally called gene expression.

In any medical specialty, Dr. Janowski said, there are conditions where increased gene expression would prove beneficial.

"In some disease states, it’s not that gene expression is completely turned off, but rather, the levels of expression are lower than they should be," she said. As a result, there is an inadequate amount of a particular protein in the body. "If we can bring the level up a few notches, we might actually treat or cure the disease," Dr. Janowski said.

For example, some genes are natural tumor suppressors, and using this method to selectively activate those genes might help the body fend off cancer, Dr. Janowski said.

Genes are segments of DNA housed in chromosomes in the nucleus of every cell and they carry instructions for making proteins. Faulty or mutated genes lead to malfunctioning, missin
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