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NSF Early CAREER Award Winner Sapna Deo Pursues New RNA Detection Method

Release Date: 
Jul 18 2008

July 18, 2008 - Imagine a probe that could rapidly determine from the smallest possible sample whether a bioterrorist attack had occurred, or identify whether bacteria such as E. coli or cancer were present.

And do it by causing the detection target, if present, to glow like a firefly.

Such a detection method is under development by Sapna Deo, an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Science at IUPUI. That research, which she has pursued with the graduate students, undergraduate students and even high school students working in her lab, has earned Deo a National Science Foundation (NSF) award.

She is one of only 39 chemistry researchers in the country to receive an Early Career Development Award (CAREER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It is the NSF's most prestigious award in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. The $595,000 award will support Deo's work in the development of bioanalytical detection methods.

In technical terms, Deo and her students are developing a highly sensitive one-step hybridization-based detection method for target ribonucleic acids (RNAs) based on Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET) from the enzyme Renilla luciferase (hRluc) to a quantum dot.

Detection of ribonucleic acids, (RNAs) is an emerging field in molecular analysis, since these molecules can be viewed as a signature blueprint that allows for the rapid and accurate identification of microorganisms, for gene regulation analysis, and for the diagnosis of infection.

While RNA s can be detected now, techniques for doing so tend to be cumbersome and not sensitive enough, Deo said. "A method that is sensitive enough to take a cell extract and measure it directly is needed."

One of the ways to detect bacteria is to look for the signature sequences of RNA for different kinds of bacteria, she continued. "If you wanted to identify whether E. coli was present, you look for the signature sequence of E. coli and could say whether it is present or not."

Deo's research aims at developing detection probes that could be used to identify multiple targets and address the key challenges in RNA detection: sensitivity, specificity, and speed of detection. The method she is pursuing takes advantage of the luminescent properties of proteins that can be chemically bonded to RNAs, using the bioluminescent enzyme Renilla luciferase.

The probes she is working on could also be used, in a similar fashion, to identify MicroRNAs that regulate gene expression and are linked to cancer.

Ultimately, Deo said, her research my enable not only the detection of diseases but the monitoring of cell therapy treatment regimes.

Through her research, Deo has been able to involve students in her work that cuts across a number of academic fields. For younger students, those in high school and even undergraduates, it also shows them that science is about solving problems, which they find exciting, Deo said. When high school students, undergraduates and graduate students work with researchers, it shows them science offers a career path that many did not know existed, she noted.