Jamey Marth, Ph.D.,who directs the joint Center for Nanomedicine established by Sanford-Burnham and UC Santa Barbara, began his career studying genes. In fact, he helped develop Cre-loxP technology, which is used by researchers worldwide to selectively remove genes to study their functions in specific cells and tissues at specific times. But over time, Dr. Marth realized that there was more to cells than what DNA, RNA and proteins were teaching us.
“We have been looking to genes to find the origins of disease,” says Dr. Marth, “but genomic variation has not explained the origins of many common grievous diseases, such as diabetes, autoimmune conditions and various neurodegenerative disorders.”
When his research revealed that mechanisms responsible for at least some of these diseases were attributed to non-genetic alterations of cells, Dr. Marth began to see things differently.
“Genes and proteins are important, but cells are also made up of two other major structural components: glycans (sugars) and lipids (fats). We need to come to a better understanding of how they operate and malfunction in causing disease.”
Dr. Marth notes that glycans and lipids are much more difficult to study because they are not template-driven. In other words, a specific sequence of DNA is a template for a specific sequence of RNA, which in turn creates a sequence of amino acids that build a protein. Lipids and glycans, on the other hand, are not so easy to trace.
“There will continue to be profound discoveries in the genome, but we’re going to miss things if we don’t look at the cell in a more holistic, rigorous way,” says Dr. Marth.
“We need to develop high-throughput structural analysis of glycans and lipids so we can see inside that black box. Nanotechnology is the best way to achieve this and incorporating these components more broadly into nanomedicine is expected to further enrich our current approaches to diseases that we still have trouble treating effectively.”