For Immediate Release
Believed to be the first technique for imaging RNA in living cells, a
new class of beacons under development at the Georgia Institute of Technology
and Emory University also has potential applications
in the rapid diagnosis of viral infections, as well as drug discovery
and pharmacogenomics. Their ability to rapidly detect viruses makes the
beacons potentially valuable in the battle against bio-terrorism.
Georgia Tech and Emory researchers are developing improved signaling,
targeting and delivery systems for the beacons, which consist of a fluorescent
dye molecule and a quencher molecule on opposite ends of an oligonucleotide
engineered to match specific genetic sequences associated with disease.
Initially, the dye and quencher molecules are held close together in
a hairpin shape, the quencher preventing fluorescent emission from the
dye. When delivered into cells, the beacons seek out matching sequences
in genetic material known as messenger
RNA (mRNA). If the beacons encounter and bind with their specific
mRNA targets, Watson-Crick base-pairs holding the dye and quencher together
break, allowing emission of a specific fluorescent signal when excited
Details of the research, sponsored by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation
and the National Science Foundation,
were presented March 26 at the 225th national meeting of the American
Chemical Society in New Orleans, LA.
Researchers led by Gang
Bao, associate professor in the Wallace
H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering operated jointly by
Georgia Tech and Emory, are improving earlier beacon systems to overcome
problems specific to their use in living cells. They have also made progress
developing magnetic beacons suitable for use in body tissues too deep
for optical imaging to work.
"We want to cover the whole spectrum," Bao explained. "The
idea is to use the optical molecular beacons for cellular studies outside
the body. You can combine that with a delivery system and additional technologies
to do shallow tissue imaging. With the magnetic beacons, we could do deep-tissue
Developed in the mid-1990s, molecular beacons are used today by researchers
to detect sequences of nucleic acids in homogeneous solutions. Bao and
collaborators Andrew Tsourkas and Phil Santangelo have improved the basic
system to enhance accuracy and efficacy in living cells.
Normal enzyme activity within living cells can separate the dye molecule
from the quencher, producing a false positive signal. To address that
problem, Bao and his collaborators developed a system in which two beacons
attach to the same target mRNA on adjacent binding sites. When that happens,
fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET) between a donor beacon and
an acceptor beacon creates a red-shifted optical signal that can be distinguished
from false signals produced by the enzymatic digestion of single beacons.
"FRET is extremely sensitive to the distance between donor and acceptor
molecules, so it occurs only when the donor and acceptor molecules are
bound to the same mRNA target," Bao explained. "Therefore, detecting
fluorescence due to FRET can significantly reduce signal contamination
from beacon degradation and spontaneous opening."
In addition to these innovations, as part of studies to optimize the
beacons, researchers have learned how molecular beacon design and other
factors affect binding time, specificity and accuracy.
Optical signals can be measured in laboratory tests and in living tissues
near the skin, but the light cannot penetrate into deep tissues. To address
that need, the researchers are developing beacons containing magnetic
nanoparticles. These magnetic beacons take advantage of the fact that
when two magnetic nanoparticles attach to adjacent sites of a target mRNA,
the disturbance they create in water molecules can be detected with magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI).
So far, the researchers have shown that the clustering of magnetic nanoparticles
can be detected with MRI, and they have combined the nanoparticles with
oligonucleotides necessary for recognizing and binding to target mRNA.
Bao and colleagues are pursuing other improvements, including an ability
to target specific organ systems, more rapidly disperse the beacons into
cells, and recognize genetic sequences that signify the presence of viruses.
The latter work, in which the researchers have shown their ability to
detect viral mRNA, could be the basis for tests able to identify viruses
within a few hours instead of days.
With Dr. Karim Godamunne, who holds both a medical degree and an MBA,
Bao has formed a start-up company Vivonetics to commercialize
the patent-pending technology. The company recently received a $50,000
commercialization grant from the Georgia
Many challenges lie ahead.
In early and more curable stages of cancer, the amount of marker RNA
is low in bodily fluids such as blood or pancreatic fluid. That means
the researchers must develop a detection system sensitive enough to pick
up very faint signals.
A definitive cancer diagnosis requires recognizing several markers, so
they will also have to use several beacons systems together, each targeting
different markers and producing different signals. For in-vivo use, researchers
will have to show that the beacons don't harm healthy cells.
For cancer, Bao envisions a comprehensive system in which molecular beacons detect cancerous cells in lab-tested bodily fluids. When appropriate fluids cannot be obtained, other beacons could be introduced into the body to detect the cancerous cells. Beacons could then be used to monitor the success of cancer therapy. And because they specifically attach to mRNA, beacons could perhaps also be used to slow down or halt the growth of cancer cells.
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TECHNICAL CONTACT: Dr. Karim Godamunne (404-385-4064); (email@example.com).
WRITER: John Toon