Sign Up for Fundamentals

Stay up-to-date with the latest research findings from the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.

Please enter a valid email address.
Fundamentals Topics+

Kenneth Witwer on microRNA and cellular Bubbles


More Profiles

Kenneth Witwer on microRNA and cellular Bubbles

Interviewed by Catherine Gara

Kenneth Witwer on microRNA and cellular Bubbles

Kenneth Witwer is an assistant professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology. He focuses on small RNA molecules that can exit cells in little “bubbles,” much like HIV. 

What kind of research do you do?

WITWER: My lab studies RNA, which is similar to DNA but has different jobs in the cell. People are most familiar with messenger RNAs, which carry genes’ codes to the molecular machines that make proteins. We focus on microRNAs, very short stretches that control messenger RNAs. We know that microRNAs can also influence HIV and other viruses, so we want to better understand what they do and how.

These RNA molecules can also leave cells in little bubbles surrounded by pieces of the outer envelope of the cell. These “extracellular vesicles” look a lot like HIV particles. We compare vesicles from healthy cells to vesicles from HIV-infected cells to HIV particles so that we can understand the differences in the cargo that they carry.

One potential clinical application of our work would be a diagnostic test using extracellular vesicles taken from a patient’s blood that could show us when he or she is developing an additional disorder. Another would be using a targeted RNA sequence to guide a protein to dormant HIV to activate the virus and make it “come out of hiding” so that the immune system can eradicate it from the patient’s body.

How did you get interested in science?

WITWER: There are a lot of moments and experiences I could point to. I remember “engineering” a novel organism for a fourth grade project, an animal that was spherical and moved by rolling around. I put papier-mache on a huge balloon and then covered it with some concoction I made from wallpaper paste and food coloring to simulate skin. It looked revolting, but it was fun thinking about how different systems would function in this spherical animal.

Witwer's garden Witwer's garden

Much later, I was in college at Harvard University, studying Germanic languages and literatures because I wanted to be a professor of German literature. I was browsing through the bookstore and came across The Molecular Biology of the Cell, the big Bruce Alberts textbook. When I looked inside at the illustrations of so many biological mechanisms, I knew I had to buy it and read it cover to cover. I did, and it changed my life.

What do you like to do outside the lab?

WITWER: I like to grow plants. I have a pepper plant in my office that’s not very pretty, but it’s at least 4 years old and was given to me by a colleague who was leaving the university. I enjoy building things like garden walls, and I installed a good-size pond in my backyard. I do it for the exercise, since I have otherwise sworn off exercise, and for the sense of accomplishment. I also like to read fiction, although I mostly only get to do that on vacation at the beach.

Kenneth Witwer on microRNA and HIV

Kenneth Witwer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, describes his research on tiny RNA molecules and their potential role in thwarting HIV.