High Impact/High Risk program selects two faculty members

By Amanda Siegfried

Two faculty members have received funding for research projects to explore novel hypotheses related to RNA-controlled gene regulation and advanced biomedical imaging tech­nology. Funding for their chancy proposals came through UT Southwestern's High Impact/High Risk Research Program.

Dr. Bethany Janowski and Dr. Matthew Merritt have joined 26 UT Southwestern faculty members who have received High Impact/High Risk grants since the program was established in 2001.

The two projects are led by Dr. Bethany Janowski, assistant professor of pharmacology, and Dr. Matthew Merritt, assistant professor in the Advanced Imaging Research Center and of radiology.

The emphasis of the UT Southwestern Medical School program is on research that has the potential to greatly influence the science or practice of medicine even though there is a substantial risk of failure. Grant recipients are funded for a year to aggressively test a hypothesis and determine whether the idea has promise.

With the addition of the new recipients, 28 faculty members have received grants through the program since it was established in 2001.

Dr. Janowski will use her grant to investigate the role RNA (ribonucleic acid) plays in activating and inhibiting genes. Her research has shown that, contrary to established theories, RNA can interact with a non-gene region of DNA called a promoter region, a sequence of DNA occurring spatially in front of an actual gene that must be activated before a gene can be turned on.

Using strands of RNA manufactured in the lab, she and her colleagues have determined that their designer RNA can regulate gene expression by perturbing the mixture of proteins that surround promoter regions. Her findings about the underlying mechanisms of RNA-activated gene expression reveal a new and unexpected target for potential drug development.

"Involvement of RNA at a gene promoter is a new concept," Dr. Janowski said. "Interactions at gene promoters are critical for under­standing disease, and our results bring a new dimension to understanding how genes can be regulated."

Dr. Merritt will use his grant to investigate the use of novel imaging agents to probe key physiological and metabolic processes. Specifically, he is exploring how the element yttrium could be used in experimental, and eventually clinical, magnetic reso­nance imaging applications.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) are among the most prevalent methods used to diagnose injury or disease. Such techniques, however, lack the ability to detect metabolic processes that might be indicative of diseases such as diabetes and cancer. Dr. Merritt's research program aims to produce hyperpolarized yttrium-89 atoms, an isotope of the element, which could be used to make such techniques 10,000 times more sensitive.

"Sensitivities of this magnitude would fundamentally change the types of problems we can approach," Dr. Merritt said. "Yttrium-89 typically is not widely used in nuclear magnetic resonance, but it has a variety of properties that suggest it may make an ideal imaging agent."