Green Garners Award to Develop Cell-Signal Sensor

Assistant Professor Alexander Green (BME) and a colleague at Yale University have earned a Scialog Collaborative Innovation Award to develop a new type of sensor capable of detecting heretofore hidden signals within a cell, with potential applications both diagnostic and therapeutic.

In the dense chemical machinery of the cell, certain proteins elude detection—proteins, or signals, that are short-lived or exist only in very small quantities. These wily signals are nearly impossible to spot using conventional imaging techniques.

The award, from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, aims to foster collaboration between teams of experts from different disciplines. His co-winner, Julien Berro, is from the Yale School of Medicine. Their proposal, “Intercepting the Cell’s Hidden Signals via Peptide-Activated RNA Switches,” was one of nine to be granted seed funding.

The duo’s strategy employs RNA switches to intercept and record the hard-to-find signals. “If it’s a short-lived signal, the RNA molecule we engineer will capture it and cause that signal to be stored in the sequence of the RNA itself,” says Green. “If it’s a very low-concentration signal, the RNA molecule can amplify the signal, by generating multiple copies of a reporter molecule that’s much easier to detect.”

Green has pioneered several classes of RNA switches that regulate gene expression, while Berro brings expertise in the study of transient cellular processes. If successful, their collaboration will bear fruit in terms of basic science as well as societal impact.

“It could answer questions that are fundamental to our understanding of life,” says Green. “But you can imagine the same technologies being used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. It could detect whether something’s gone awry, and that can be used to elicit a response inside the cell—such as a therapeutic protein that could resolve the issue.”