Dr. Juw Won Park receives NIH Award for work with circular RNA

Headshot of Juw Won ParkDr. Juw Won Park, an assistant professor in the department of Computer Engineering and Computer Science, recently received a National Institute of Health award for his work on “Detecting and characterizing circular RNAs using high-throughput sequencing data.” Park began his career with a focus on bio-informatics, completing his undergraduate degree at Korea University in Computer Science, before traveling to the United States to obtain a masters and PhD from the University of Iowa, with his post-doc work at UCLA.

Research Park
Using the Zika-Virus as their sample source, Park and his team put safety first in their efforts to explore the possibility of circular RNA. To do so, Park is collaborating with Dr. Donghoon Chung in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology who is going to get the infected and non-infected Zika-Virus infected samples. Further research will be handled UofL Genomics Facility with Dr. Wolfgang Zacharias. Chung will prepare the specimen, Zacharias does the sequencing, and Park will do the analysis of the high throughput data with Dr. Nigel Cooper, director of the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network, serving as the PI.

Bio-Informatics to Alternative Splicing
His work evolved to include the visualization of genomics data, which intends to catalog the various genetic pairings that comprise the human genome. Initially, his work mixed visualization and statistical genetics, with the goal of trying to find a candidate location of the gene that’s responsible for a specific trait.

He says of the evolution of his work, “I jumped into the bio-informatics field and into the analysis of alternative splicing data. A human has about 30K genes. A plant like rice has 50K genes. Humans are a lot more complicated. From one gene, you’re not using the whole gene to make one protein. You select part of the genes to make a protein.“

Circling a Solution
As such, Park’s work centers around alternative splicing, an internal editing process that results in protein synthesis, combining in ways that often have a diverse array of effects, both positive and negative. At the start of his tenure at the Speed School, Park was introduced through his research to the concept of circular RNA, which is a form that bonds and interacts differently. It was that revelation that has served as the thrust for his current efforts.

He explains, “The linear form of MRNA has a start and end. There is a degradation mechanism that looks for the head and tail, and eats from the head, so that it doesn’t get translated into protein. Not all get translated into proteins. Maybe it doesn’t have enough ribosomes to translate into RNA.

He adds, “The circular RNA does not have a head and tail. It’s circular. Because of its structural characteristics, it’s more resistant to the degradation mechanism. It stays there a lot longer than the linear form. Sometimes it does good things and sometimes it does bad things. Circular RNA is common neural and cancer cells. Circular RNA can be formed by any genes. Some suppresses the disease like cancer. Sometimes, some types of circular RNA supports the cancer, or even metastasis.”

Utilizing these tools, Park intends to compare cancer cells and normal cells with the goal of  detecting the same circular RNA cells that are commonly resisting cancer cells.

“Let’s say someone has lung cancer. I get tissue from the lung cancer and healthy cancer. I sequence it. I find the same circular RNAs, but you’ve got 1000 in the cancer tissue, but 5 in the healthy tissue. That would suggest that one is supporting the cancer,” says Park.

Park’s research involves sorting and analyzing thousands of RNA material, and using that data to compare and contrast the useful and destructive RNA. Micro-RNA, which binds two genes and then suppresses their translation, prohibits transcription from DNA to RNA or translation from RNA to protein.

“What is fascinating is this: circular RNA lives longer. There is a micro-RNA and it’s supposed to go to gene A to prohibit the transcription or translation. But you have the circular RNA that has the binding site of the micro-RNA. It has a competing situation,” says Park. “I’m going to develop a tool that detects and quantify circular RNA in both conditions. My second goal is to develop some visualization tool that visualizes the binding sites within circular RNAs; if we are lucky, we probably know the function of the circular RNA.”