Last year I covered research led by Peixuan Guo—at the time he was at the University of Cincinnati—in making stable 3D nanostructures out of RNA (ribonucleic acid) that were resistant to the enzymes that chop RNA up within minutes.
At the time, this was a significant achievement because RNA possesses more flexible capabilities in building structures than does DNA—or would, if they weren't eaten up in short order. With a stable RNA Guo planned on using it in “gearing a powerful nanomotor that packages viral DNA into the protein shells of a bacterial virus named phi29.”
Now Guo is back with his stable RNA—this time at the University of Kentucky—and has developed a nanoparticle made from the material that could help treat cancer and viral infections.
The research, which was published in Nano Today, involved building an X-shaped RNA structure in which each arm of the structure could contain different diagnostic and therapeutic packages.
The packages used in this structure were “small interfering RNA for silencing genes, micro-RNA for regulating gene expression, aptamer for targeting cancer cells, or a ribozyme that can catalyze chemical reactions.”
"RNA nanotechnology is an emerging field, but the instability and degradation of RNA nanoparticles have made many scientists flinch away from the research in RNA nanotechnology,” Guo said in the university press release covering the research. “We have addressed these issues, and now it is possible to produce RNA nanoparticles that are highly stable both chemically and thermodynamically in the test tube or in the body with great potential as therapeutic reagents.”
Of course, there are a number of nanostructures that have proven capable of both diagnostic and therapeutic in the treatment of cancer and other diseases. It’s not clear from the research whether the RNA-based nanoparticles are any more effective than some other nanostructure in these roles.
The research seems instead to focus on what is capable with an RNA nanoparticle that can stay intact long enough to build something from them. Perhaps their “bottom-up” manufacturing capabilities are still being considered for molecular machine systems as the Foresight Institute wished for last year.
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.