NEW YORK — By engineering cells to express a modified RNA called “Spinach,” researchers have imaged small-molecule metabolites in living cells and observed how their levels change over time. Metabolites are the products of individual cell metabolism. The ability to measure their rate of production could be used to recognize a cell gone metabolically awry, as in cancer, or identify the drug that can restore the cell’s metabolites to normal.
Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College say the advance, described in the March 9 issue of Science, has the potential to revolutionize the understanding of the metabolome, the thousands of metabolites that provide chemical fingerprints of dynamic activity within cells.
“The ability to see metabolites in action will offer us new and powerful clues into how they are altered in disease and help us find treatments that can restore their levels to normal,” says Dr. Samie R. Jaffrey, an associate professor of pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Jaffrey led the study, which included three other Weill Cornell investigators.
“Metabolite levels in cells control so many aspects of their function, and because of this, they provide a powerful snapshot of what is going on inside a cell at a particular time,” he says.
For example, biologists know that metabolism in cancer cells is abnormal; these cells alter their use of glucose for energy and produce unique breakdown products such as lactic acid, thus producing a distinct metabolic profile. “The ability to see these metabolic abnormalities can tell you how the cancer might develop,” Dr. Jaffrey says. “But up until now, measuring metabolites has been very difficult in living cells.”
In the Science study, Dr. Jaffrey and his team demonstrated that specific RNA sequences can be used to sense levels of metabolites in cells. These RNAs are based on the Spinach RNA, which emits a greenish glow in cells. Dr. Jaffrey’s team modified Spinach RNAs so they are turned off until they encounter the metabolite they are specifically designed to bind to, causing the fluorescence of Spinach to be switched on. They designed RNA sequences to trace the levels of five different metabolites in cells, including ADP, the product of ATP, the cell’s energy molecule, and SAM (S-Adenosyl methionine), which is involved in methylation that regulates gene activity. “Before this, no one has been able to watch how the levels of these metabolites change in real time in cells,” he says.
Delivering the RNA sensors into living cells allows researchers to measure levels of a target metabolite in a single cell as it changes over time. “You could see how these levels change dynamically in response to signaling pathways or genetic changes. And you can screen drugs that normalize those genetic abnormalities,” Dr. Jaffrey says. “A major goal is to identify drugs that normalize cellular metabolism.”
This strategy overcomes drawbacks of the prevailing method of sensing molecules in living cells using green fluorescent protein (GFP). GFP and other proteins can be used to sense metabolites if they are fused to naturally occurring proteins that bind the metabolite. In some cases, metabolite binding can twist the proteins in a way that affects their fluorescence. However, for most metabolites, there are no proteins available that can be fused to GFP to make sensors.
By using RNAs as metabolite sensors, this problem is overcome. “The amazing thing about RNA is that you can make RNA sequences that bind to essentially any small molecule you want. They can be made in a couple of weeks,” Dr. Jaffrey says. These artificial sequences are then fused to Spinach and expressed as a single strand of RNA in cells.
“This approach would potentially allow you to take any small molecule metabolite you want to study and see it inside cells,” Dr. Jaffrey says. He and his colleagues have expanded the technology to detect proteins and other molecules inside living cells.
He adds that uses of the technology to understand human biology can be applied to many diseases. “We are very interested in seeing how metabolic changes within brain neurons contribute to developmental disorders such as autism,” Dr. Jaffrey says. “There are a lot of opportunities, as far as this new tool is concerned.”
Co-authors of the study include Dr. Jeremy S. Paige, Mr. Thinh Nguyen Duc, and Dr. Wenjiao Song from the Department of Pharmacology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
The study was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the NIH, and the McKnight Foundation. The Cornell Center for Technology Enterprise and Commercialization (CCTEC), on behalf of Cornell University, has filed has filed for patent protection on this technology. Dr. Samie Jaffrey is the founder and scientific advisor to Lucerna Technologies, and holds equity interests in this company. In addition, Lucerna Technologies has a license that is related to technology described in this press release.
Weill Cornell Medical College
Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University’s medical school located in New York City, is committed to excellence in research, teaching, patient care and the advancement of the art and science of medicine, locally, nationally and globally. Physicians and scientists of Weill Cornell Medical College are engaged in cutting-edge research from bench to bedside, aimed at unlocking mysteries of the human body in health and sickness and toward developing new treatments and prevention strategies. In its commitment to global health and education, Weill Cornell has a strong presence in places such as Qatar, Tanzania, Haiti, Brazil, Austria and Turkey. Through the historic Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, the Medical College is the first in the U.S. to offer its M.D. degree overseas. Weill Cornell is the birthplace of many medical advances — including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer, the synthesis of penicillin, the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S., the first clinical trial of gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease, and most recently, the world’s first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. Weill Cornell Medical College is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where its faculty provides comprehensive patient care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The Medical College is also affiliated with the Methodist Hospital in Houston. For more information, visit weill.cornell.edu.