Google Map of the Brain
Dr. Shahar Alon’s research allows us, for the first time, to “find” the RNA within whole brain tissue
Comparing the RNA of a healthy person with the RNA of someone who is ill can teach us a great deal about cancer, Alzheimer’s and various other diseases. Dr. Shahar Alon, of the Kofkin Faculty of Engineering, the Institute of Nanotechnology & Advanced Materials and the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, has developed a novel technique for detecting RNA molecules in tissue. Uniquely, this technique does not harm the tissue being studied – to date, most RNA testing methods have required the tissue to be dismantled and the molecules extracted. The method proposed by Dr. Alon, a physicist with a dual focus on physics and biology, allows research into intact tissues.
The study of Dr. Alon and his partners at Bar-Ilan, MIT and other health and academic institutions around the world, has been published in the journal Science. The article presents the method, termed “ExSeq” for expansion sequencing, and its important advantage: it enables researchers to obtain both molecular and spatial information on RNA with nanoscale precision.
RNA, which has made headlines because of its key role in the COVID-19 vaccine, acts as a messenger, communicating the information contained in our DNA to the rest of the cell. While DNA, the long molecule that carries all our genetic information, remains enclosed and protected within the cell nucleus, RNA, in its various forms, carries genetic information from DNA into protein, and more. As such, RNA is an important provider of data relating to diseases as well as to tissue structure. The technology developed by Dr. Alon is particularly important for brain tissue research and cancer research.
As to brain research, Dr. Alon explains that the location of molecules in tissue influences processes such as memory and learning. The technique that he developed, allows us, for the first time, to “find” the RNA within whole brain tissue, and to learn which of the molecules participate in the memory and learning processes, and hence learn whether the molecules or their locations are damaged as a result of illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s. Regarding cancer research, one of the important questions is how the immune system affects cancer cells. The novel ExSeq technique makes it possible to see where in the tissue the cancer cells are located in relation to the immune system cells, and what their molecular content is. One of the findings made thanks to the new technology is that cancer cells behave differently when they are close to immune cells.