Firefly Frontiers Winner: Elena Flowers, PhD

Elena Flowers, RN, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the Department of Physiological Nursing at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Flowers received her nursing credential in 2004 and went on to pursue a career in research investigating genetic and lifestyle factors that influence chronic conditions, such as cardiovascular and metabolic disease.

In her most recent study, supported by the Firefly Frontiers grant, Prof. Flowers will examine how microRNA expression levels differ between individuals with and without insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes, and how these levels may predict treatment response.

What fascinates you most about microRNAs?

We now understand that nearly every disease condition arises from the combination of both inherited and acquired risk factors. Epigenetic mechanisms are the nexus for this paradigm of gene-environment interactions. MicroRNAs, specifically, are a highly dynamic epigenetic mechanism, facilitating rapid adaption to changes in the environment within the parameters of individual underlying genetic makeup. MicroRNAs have the potential to provide us with an entirely new framework in which to define, diagnose, and treat disease.

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

At present, microRNAs have three important potential clinical implications: (1) biomarkers of underlying disease; (2) biomarkers of response to interventions; and (3) as therapeutic interventions themselves. My program of research is focused on the possibility of microRNA as biomarkers for common, complex diseases such as cardiovascular and metabolic disease. These are multi-factorial conditions with heterogeneous etiology between individuals. Detection of differential microRNA expression may elucidate specific biologic pathways that have been activated in a given individual – approaching the idea of precision medicine. In this same vein, microRNAs are possibly predictive biomarkers for response to both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic risk-reduction interventions, potentially enabling individual tailoring of interventions to maximize response while minimizing patient burden.

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

The most common critique I receive from reviewers is concern about the reliability of measurement of microRNA and the possibility for clinical translation.

What advantages does FirePlex® miRSelect bring to your research?

FirePlex® miRSelect is facilitating measurement of nearly the full set of microRNAs that are reliably detectable in human blood in a large number of individual samples in remarkably short time with decreased personnel costs compared to alternative methods. The ability to screen so many microRNA targets provides new data on microRNAs that have previously not been studied in insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes, as well as evaluation of specific microRNAs that have been studied in related conditions or disease models.