VCU Forensic MicroRNA Study Funded by National Institute of Justice

Interdisciplinary team looking at multiple applications of this research

Most people are familiar with DNA, the molecule found in our bodies that encodes the genetic instructions and is often referred to as one of the building blocks, or the blueprint, of the body. And if you’ve watched a crime show, you know that DNA is an important part of forensic science that helps to identify suspects. 
  
What is not so familiar are RNAs, which are working “copies” of DNA found in different cells, including bodily fluids. Also considered one of the building blocks of the body, RNA is typically found in a single-stranded form in cells whereas DNA is usually in a double-stranded form. 
  
Cancer and forensic science researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have joined together to look at microRNAs in a study supported by a two-year, $310,000 grant from the Office of Justice Programs, housed within the National Institute of Justice (NIJ). MicroRNAs are a recently discovered class of RNAs that play key roles in the regulation of gene expression. 
  

Sarah Seashols (left) and Zendra Zehner, Ph.D. (right) received a two-year $310,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to study microRNAs.

Sarah Seashols (left) and Zendra Zehner, Ph.D. (right) received a two-year $310,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to study microRNAs.

The researchers are using deep sequencing to identify and characterize microRNAs in forensically important biological fluids. This molecular identification of body fluids represents a new technique that supplements DNA analysis in forensic cases. 
  
“Identifying any bodily fluid at a molecular level would be highly advantageous for forensic evidence,” said Sarah Seashols, forensic molecular biology instructor in the VCU Department of Forensic Science, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and co-principal investigator on the NIJ study. 
  
Also interested in identifying microRNAs is the study’s other co-principal investigator, Zendra Zehner, Ph.D., professor in theDepartment of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at VCU Massey Cancer Center, who is hoping to find new biomarkers for prostate cancer through microRNAs. 
  
“Approximately 1,600 microRNAs have been identified so far, and we suspect there are more that we hope to find through deep sequencing, a technique that converts microRNAs to cDNAs and then determines the sequence of every microRNA in the sample using classic DNA sequencing methods.  It is a new and novel approach,” said Zehner. “In my research, I am looking at the diagnostic probabilities for prostate cancer by studying microRNAs to find an indicator of cancer. The goal is to develop a new and improved prostate cancer test by using appropriate bodily fluids to check for microRNAs denoting cancer. An easier test will mean better screening measures and the opportunity to find and start treating prostate cancer earlier, thus saving lives.” 
  
The NIJ grant was highly competitive with only 11 grants awarded out of more than 90 applications from across the nation. 
  
“I believe we attained this award due, in part, to the combination of Sarah and my strengths in forensic science and basic/cancer research,” said Zehner. “This study is a great illustration of the important interdisciplinary research and collaboration taking place at VCU.”