This is not only due to the constantly evolving nature of the ‘RNA world.’ “The biggest challenge is the large amount of data generated by our experiments and how to make sense of it,” explains Dr. Martignetti. “We need bioinformatic tools, which analyze data generated by, for example, coding RNA, messenger RNA, small nuclear RNA, so that we can see patterns and understand relationships across data sets.”
This can be a challenging yet extremely rewarding task. In one instance, Dr. Martignetti’s team used RNA to understand how cancer cells responded to a specific treatment, a novel class of chemotherapeutic recently entered into Phase II clinical trials. Using cancer cell lines derived from patients with ovarian cancer, the researchers examined their transcriptomes to determine which pathways were affected by the novel drug. This enabled the team to identify signatures associated with patients likely to respond to the proposed treatment, and those who were not likely to respond. The ultimate goal: a precision medicine approach of giving this novel agent specifically to patients whose tumors will be sensitive and respond, while not giving it to those patients whose tumors are unlikely to respond.
In another study, the scientists looked for the cause of an inherited form of bone cancer across a number of families from around the world. "By analyzing these families, we identified that a single mutation resulted in the showering of new hybrid RNA molecules that change the function of a critical metabolic enzyme," explained Dr. Martignetti.