Special RNA Molecules Play Key Role in Immune Defense

Published on in CHOP News

A CHOP scientist recently reported that special RNA molecules play an important role in controlling how the immune system fights infection and prevents inflammatory disorders. Because this molecule regulates the lifespan of a set of white blood cells, the research could lead to new treatments for chronic diseases such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease and diabetes.

Jorge Henao-Mejia, MD, PhD, from the Division of Transplant Immunology in CHOP’s Pathology Department, led a study published online Aug. 15 in Nature. This research focused on a type of molecule called a long non-coding RNA (lncRNA). Although lncRNAs do not carry genetic codes to produce proteins, they may act on biological pathways that affect how cells rapidly adapt to the environment.

In particular, Hanao-Mejia and colleagues studied the lncRNA called Morrbid. As hinted by its name, Morrbid is involved in death. It interrupts signals that allow a group of white blood cells to persist in the body longer than usual. Their abnormally long survival contributes to inflammation and organ damage, so Morrbid has a key role in strictly regulating that cell activity and causing malfunctioning cells to die.

The study team performed their research in mice, but similar processes occur in humans, in both rare and common diseases with poorly regulated inflammation. “We will use these findings to investigate how we might target similar biological pathways in people to develop new treatments for children and adults,” said Henao-Mejia.

In addition to his CHOP title, Henao-Mejia also is on the faculty of the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

View the Penn Medicine press release about his research