H. Kumar Wickramasinghe Awarded $1 Million Keck Foundation Grant

Funds to create a live cell genomics laboratory

The Henry Samueli Endowed Chair H. Kumar Wickramasinghe, Ph.D., has been awarded a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to develop new equipment for analysis of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) levels in space and time within a living cell.

Wickramasinghe’s project entitled “Platform for Targeting and Quantifying Gene Expression Levels in Living Systems” describes the three-year plan to create the Single-Cell Analyzer (SCA) which will have applications in areas ranging from developmental and systems biology to personalized medicine, cancer diagnosis and stem cell research. The ability to measure mRNAs in live cells is a significant advantage over current technology, since it will allow dynamic tracking of transcriptional responses to applied stimuli, such as silencing RNAs, drugs or signaling molecules.

In addition to the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, he has appointments in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science in The Henry Samueli School of Engineering. Wickramasinghe has demonstrated that an active atomic force microscope (AFM) probe chemically modified with deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) primers can be inserted into a cell, without destruction, to selectively capture mRNA and subsequently be quantified. Since mRNA levels can be assessed without affecting cell viability, the same cell can be monitored over time.

Professor Kavita Arora, Ph.D., and Associate Professor Rahul Warrior, Ph.D., from the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology from the School of Biological Sciences are co-primary investigators on the project. Dr.Alice Yamada, manager of molecular and cellular biology at Agilent Technologies; Associate Professor Edward L. Nelson, M.D., chief of hematology/oncology in the Department of Medicine; and ProfessorArthur D. Lander, M.D., Ph.D., Department of Developmental and Cell Biology are collaborating with Wickramasinghe on applying the SCA technology to their research.

The group believes that this technology has the potential to transform cell biology by fast tracking quantitative studies and spurring many areas of investigation in biology. The development of the SCA technology on a commercial microscope platform will make the approach available to a large community of cell biologists and biomedical researchers.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company.  The Foundation's grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical, science and engineering research.