Newswise — MOUNT VERNON, Iowa–Many scientists study the proteins in our cells in order to fight diseases like cancer, but Cornell College Assistant Biochemistry Professor Collin O’Leary and a team of researchers are turning their focus to the structure of RNA. 

RNA or ribonucleic acid is a type of nucleic acid made by cells that carry instructions from the DNA and helps control the production of proteins. Scientists also know that RNA is the genetic material of some viruses and diseases, like coronavirus.

O’Leary’s RNA-based research was recently published in the scholarly journal, Nucleic Acids Research, in the article “The RNA secondary structure of androgen receptor-FL and V7 Transcripts Reveals Novel Regulatory Regions.”

“Historically, proteins have been easier to study than RNA. A lot of time what we are doing is targeting the proteins that are dysregulated and figuring out a way to either turn those off or turn them up or down to stop the disease,” O’Leary said. “Our idea in this paper is if we can identify RNA structure and function, we can begin to target that with different drugs and therapies much like we target proteins, especially when it relates to diseases like cancer.” 

The research team, which includes Cornell alum Van Tompkins ’00, Warren Rouse, and Walter Moss, specifically looked at the biological structure of the Androgen Receptor (AR), which is a protein dysregulated in some cancer cells. 

This research used a combination of experiments and computer analysis to study two different forms of the Androgen Receptor’s RNA. The scientists were able to map the structural landscapes of the RNA molecules and identify specific portions of the RNA that may have important functions. They examined how the Androgen Receptor RNA interacted with proteins, where they were binding together, and where there were regions of the RNA that were functional and important to note for future study.

“One of the things that made this target androgen receptor an attractive target to go after is it’s a gene that is dysregulated in several different cancer types, so a lot of people in the cancer field are trying to find drugs or therapeutics that target the proteins. We are trying to say there can be some really rigid and robust structures within the RNAs that may also serve as drug targets,” O’Leary said. “What’s unique in our research is we are highlighting and zooming in on the regions that are more likely to be functional. If drug targeting efforts aren’t going anywhere at the protein level, we can expand our efforts by looking at the functional regions that we’ve identified in the RNA.”

These researchers say understanding the structure and function of RNA could hold a lot of answers. The research team strung together several different methodologies to better understand RNA throughout their research, and they’re part of a growing community making progress on this research.

“We’re starting to enter a phase in RNA research where people are understanding its importance and its relevance, especially after coronavirus, which was an RNA-based virus. The best tool we’ve come across so far to combat that is the mRNA vaccine, which is also RNA-based. I think people are realizing that we can do a lot and understand human health and disease at the RNA level. This paper is a nice culmination of methodologies to examine the structure and function of RNA.”

O’Leary is planning to continue his work with RNA studies at Cornell College with his students. They’ll be looking at RNA in yeast cells over the summer at the 2024 Cornell Summer Research Institute

“If we can identify genes that are relevant to human health that are also conserved in yeast, we can very easily manipulate those inside yeast cells to see what it did to the yeast and relate that to human health.”

O’Leary is looking forward to creating a pipeline for RNA study at Cornell College where undergraduates can continue to contribute to this growing field of science.

About Cornell College:

Cornell College is a national liberal arts college established in 1853, located in Mount Vernon, Iowa. The historic, hilltop campus has a population of more than 1,000 students from all over the world. Our undergraduate students learn on a distinctive block plan schedule, taking One Course At A Time for 18 days before starting the next course. This curriculum allows them to fully immerse themselves in their chosen topic of study, including taking field trips to another country, diving into research, creating an art exhibit, or exploring issues in the local community. For more information visit

Journal Link: Nucleic Acids Research