Firefly Frontiers Winner: Christopher Cheng

Christopher J. Cheng, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow working jointly in the Slack, Engelman, and Saltzman Labs in the MCDB, MB&B and Biomedical Engineering Departments at Yale University. Chris studies a process called "oncomiR addiction" where tumors are initiated by, and become dependent upon, the continued expression and activity of a specific microRNA. He will use the Firefly Frontiers Grant to examine alterations in miRNA expression during tumor induction and regression in lymphoma using transgenic knock-in mouse models.

What fascinates you most about microRNAs?

Once considered genetic oddities, over the past decade, microRNAs have caused a paradigm shift in our thinking about gene control. The field is growing at an astounding rate; our understanding of microRNA biology is constantly being challenged and amended. How fascinating is it that small noncoding RNAs may be involved in most, if not all, biological processes? Furthermore, given that a single microRNA can regulate numerous genes and pathways—some of these pathways even elicit auto-regulatory feedback on the effector microRNA—we have likely only begun to unravel the biological circuitry encompassed by microRNA regulation.

Where do you see the miRNA field headed in the next 5 years?  What areas are most promising for breakthrough discoveries?

The recent discovery of function-competent microRNAs residing within exosomes is currently redefining our understanding of microRNAs linked to disease, and these findings have further established microRNAs as clinically relevant biomarkers for various pathologies. Likewise, microRNAs are primed to soon become viable therapeutic tools. In cancer, certain microRNAs have been established as oncomiRs and tumor suppressors. In fact, our lab has shown that some cancers can become addicted to microRNA oncomiRs, where tumors are initiated by, and become dependent upon, the continued expression and activity of a specific microRNA. The clinical successes of earlier generation tumor suppressor- and oncogene-driven therapies have paved the way for the exploitation of microRNAs for cancer therapy.

What is your biggest pain point when it comes to microRNA research?

One of the main challenges facing microRNA research is the translation of microRNAs into clinically relevant therapeutics. Ultimately, the development of safe and effective platforms that deliver or antagonize lynchpin microRNAs in specific target tissues will be paramount for the success of microRNA therapeutics.

What advantages does FirePlex® miRSelect bring to your research?

Here, our research goals are to elucidate the mechanisms of oncomiR addiction in lymphoma and to develop therapeutics that exploit these oncogenic pathways. With the ability to profile expression levels of numerous microRNAs in tissues and serum, FirePlex® miRSelect will aid in accomplishing both of these aims. Summarily, this high-throughput system will allow us to economically address questions related to microRNA-dependent disease progression and response to therapeutics.