Ranjan Perera, Ph.D., associate professor at Sanford-Burnham, has been investigating the role of microRNA in melanoma for several years.

Perera and his team of biologists operate a state-of-the-art genome sequencing laboratory to compare patterns of microRNAs and their target gene expression in melanoma cells and normal melanocytes in hopes of finding differences that could be targeted for new diagnostics or therapeutics.

Their research found that melanocyte growth and the cancer’s ability to invade other tissue is partially controlled by abnormal expression of microRNAs. “We’ve identified two specific microRNAs, called miR-375 and miR-34b, which could be used not only as novel diagnostic markers for early melanoma detection, but may also serve as therapeutic targets,” explained Perera.

Because the team looked at so many different cells and patient samples, they generated a lot of data through next-generation sequencing technology that needed to be annotated and interpreted. Perera set out to find someone with the expertise and computing power to help him analyze the data. That’s when he met Shaojie Zhang, Ph.D., an assistant professor of engineering and computer science at UCF, whose expertise is in bioinformatics. Dr. Zhang and his graduate students analyzed the data using a computer program to identify differences in gene expression and methylation patterns between healthy and diseased cells.

“The collaboration between genomics and bioinformatics, two of the most advanced technologies in biomedical research, empowered this important research. These discoveries offer the possibility that the microRNAs we identified could be used as biomarkers to assist in earlier diagnoses of this fatal cancer,” Perera said.

For Zhang, the partnership has also meant an opportunity to give his graduate students real-world experience. “The collaboration provides an interdisciplinary education opportunity to the graduate students from the College of Engineering and Computer Science who are interested in applying their computational skills to biomedical research,” Zhang said. “The partnership not only helps advance science, but it also helps train future scientists. I’m very pleased to be a part of it.”

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