Momen-Heravi Receives Prestigious NIGMS Grant to Investigate Exosome Biogenesis and the Role of Non-coding RNAs

Dr. Fatemeh Momen-Heravi

Fatemeh Momen-Heravi, associate professor at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine and founder and director of the head and neck cancer research group at the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, is the recipient of a National Institute of General Medical Sciences Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), making her one of the few researchers across all disciplines to receive this prestigious award. Dr. Momen-Heravi is also the first dentist-scientist to achieve this honor.

The MIRA provides five years of support for research in an investigator's laboratory, with the goal of providing stability and flexibility, thereby enhancing scientific productivity and the chances for important breakthroughs. The grant will provide more than $2 million for Momen-Heravi’s research.

Momen-Heravi says that the goal of this research is to illuminate the role of exosomes, which are nano-sized vesicles secreted into the environment by all types of cells, both in physiological and pathological states. Exosomes have the ability to efficiently communicate between cells, deliver macromolecules such as proteins and nucleic acids to cells and induce functional changes in the recipient cells. Recent studies indicate that exosomes may play a role in various pathophysiological processes, including cell-to-cell communications, immune regulation, organogenesis, and carcinogenesis. Despite the high interest in exosomes for diagnostic and therapeutic applications, there is limited knowledge about the regulation of exosome secretion. Momen-Heravi’s group has identified a novel class of long non-coding RNAs as regulators of exosome biogenesis. “Our goal is to study the role of long non-coding RNA, a novel class of gene expression regulators, on exosome biogenesis,” says Momen-Heravi, “thereby advancing our understanding of these mechanisms and providing the basis for the use of exosomes as novel biomarkers and the development of new therapeutics.”

A strand of long noncoding RNA

While the human genome is largely transcribed, only a small fraction of these transcripts code for proteins. The rest, including long non-coding RNAs, have been somewhat of a mystery. However, recent research has illuminated their critical role in various cellular processes. The potential significance of exosomes and long non-coding RNAs for use in diagnostics and therapeutics is of great interest to researchers and clinicians alike. “At its core, biology is about understanding how cells respond to signals. These signals can be external, like drugs or environmental factors, or internal, such as hormones or other signaling molecules. Cells take these signals and convert them into a response. Understanding this dynamic is fundamental to virtually every aspect of biology and medicine.,” says Momen-Heravi. A better understanding of the relationship between external stimulation and cellular response, specifically how long non-coding RNAs influence cell communication, could provide a solid foundation for personalized medicine targeted at specific diseases.

The goal of this cutting-edge research is to offer new insights into the regulation of exosome biogenesis by long non-coding RNA during cellular stress, which could lead to breakthroughs in developing novel diagnostics and therapies. This grant provides the Momen-Heravi lab with the necessary resources to continue its work on this important project. “We hope that this will bring us one step closer to unraveling the mysteries of long non-coding RNAs and exosomes and their role in disease pathogenesis,” Momen-Heravi says.