Firefly Frontiers Winner: Samarjit Das, PhD

Samarjit (Sam) Das, PhD, is a research associate at the Department of Pathology at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Das’ Frontiers Grant will be used to explore the use of circulating microRNAs as a diagnostic signature for diabetes.

What fascinates you most about microRNAs?

Researchers have begun to look more closely at non-coding RNAs, including microRNAs (miRNAs), and we are just beginning to appreciate their key regulatory functions. Though small in size, microRNAs constitute a sizeable class of gene regulators (~2000 in humans), and collectively regulate at least 60% of protein-coding gene expression.

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

The sequencing of the human genome, in 2005, has offered important insight into fundamental human biology. We now know that less than 5% of the human genome encodes proteins, and vast regions of the genome are transcribed as non-coding RNAs. Each day, we are improving our sequencing technology and bioinformatics tools. The combination of these powerful technologies, I believe, will transform our understanding of human physiology in the next 5 years. I am a bit biased, but I think that the field of diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers will have a number of breakthrough discoveries in the next few years. Many agree that the key to treating many diseases is early diagnosis, and therefore research into early detection biomarkers as well as disease progression biomarkers remains a critical area of study. I also believe we are not far off from being able to target miRNAs as a potential therapy for various diseases.

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

Cost – as this is still a relatively new field of research, new tools to study miRNAs are only just arriving, and they tend to be expensive. Additionally, many of the kits and reagents available, being new, are not always optimized to work well in my system. So it tends to take a lot of time and money to get a project off the ground.

What advantages does FirePlex® miRSelect bring to your research?

There are multiple advantages that I foresee with utilizing FirePlex® miRSelect technology in my research:

1. Integrity of the sample: We are isolating circulating miRNA from human blood. The lengthy miRNA isolation process involved after we collect the blood sample from our subject often gives us very poor quality miRNA. When we aim for better quality, we often compromise quantity. However, with FirePlex® miRSelect we will not have to sacrifice quantity or quality as we do not have to go through all the same steps of isolating RNA.

2. Time Frame: FirePlex® miRSelect will allow us to examine many more patient samples at a much faster rate. In turn, this should get us to validation steps much more quickly than we had originally anticipated.

3. Cost Effectiveness: FirePlex® miRSelect is much more cost-effective compared to other novel miRNA research tools.