School of Pharmacy researcher exploring effect of light on gene expression

UMKC School of Pharmacy faculty and student researchers in the lab of Simon Friedman, Ph.D., are working to refine a technique for controlling gene expression with light. Dr. Friedman, Associate Professor in the Division of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the School of Pharmacy, recently received a grant through the National Science Foundation Chemistry of Life Processes program to support the research.

The technique is known as Light Activated RNA Interference (LARI) and, according to the researchers, once it is fully refined, it will offer the potential to examine and address questions in a range of biological systems, encompassing numerous areas of research such as developmental biology and tissue engineering.

“All of biology and life itself is influenced by the expression of genes. The spacing, timing and degree of gene expression play crucial roles in controlling life’s biological processes, including the development of organisms from a single fertilized egg,” Dr. Friedman said. “Being able to manipulate these aspects of expression will allow previously unanswerable questions about biology to be addressed.”

Using light to control gene expression means that the spacing, timing and degree of gene “knockdown” (a reduction in gene expression) can be controlled by the spacing, timing and amount of light irradiation. Nature provides the basic mechanism for controlling gene expression through a process called “RNA interference,” in which molecules of small interfering RNA (siRNA) affix themselves to specific genes and chemically “interfere” with the gene expression process. That interference can take the form of upregulation, downregulation or deactivation of the gene.

In order to further refine the LARI technique, Dr. Friedman and his colleagues are working to develop new photolabile groups (compounds subject to chemical reactions in the presence of light), which can be attached to small RNA, allowing the researchers to assess their ability to reduce gene expression in various model systems.

“What we’re talking about, ultimately, is the possibility that we will be able to literally turn off potentially harmful genes and turn on beneficial ones,” Dr. Friedman said. “The future implications of this work are diverse and truly lie at the boundary of chemistry and biology.”

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