RNA research at the University at Albany shows promise for treatment of disease

AJC1 via flickr.com
December 18, 2012

Most of us know all about DNA, the genetic building blocks that make us unique. But in recent years, there's a lot of interest in RNA - a molecule that controls how our genes are expressed.

It has big implications for treating everything from cancer to Alzheimer's disease and millions of dollars in federal and state investment are going into RNA research at the University at Albany.

UAlbany's RNA Institute was set up in 2010, and it's at the center of an emerging field of medicine that's caught the interest of scientists and drug companies around the world.

Says Paul Agris, "RNA turns genes on and off. It determines how much product from the genes are going to be produced. That product is protein."

Dr. Paul Agris runs the institute, and he compares how RNA works with proteins in the body to a car assembly line in a factory.If a factory keeps producing lemons, you could fix each car as it comes off the line, or you could go deal with the manager who's in charge- the RNA molecule. "Our idea now" he says," is to go to the manager of all this and to fix the manager's way of producing the product."

The institute is in the midst of adding a new 7.5 million dollar facility with 15,000 square feet of space for research. It was paid for with funding from the National Institutes of Health and the state.

Says Agris, "The idea is that these resources would not just be available to people in this building or this wing, but also to 50 or so faculty and their students from all over the United States."

One challenge scientists still have is making sure the RNA treatment actually targets the right part of the cell. A relatively small number of drugs have been developed, but some companies say they're making progress.

Frank Bennett is the Senior Vice President for Research at Isis Pharmaceuticals. It's a California-based company that specializes in RNA. He says they currently have about two dozen other drugs in development which target everything from neurological disease to diabetes."We're very excited about RNA as a target. We think that we're just at the tip of the iceberg."

Students here at UAlbany are experimenting with how RNA might be used to combat the harmful side effects of powerful antibiotics, which kill bad bacteria but can also harm human tissue.

Junior Kathryn Fanning is examining how it could be more effective in targeting
e-coli bacteria. "I'm interested in medicine, so this goes right hand in hand with it. The actual biochemistry behind the mechanisms."

There's still a lot researchers have to learn about harnessing RNA to treat disease, but PhD student Kimberly Harris says that's part of why she likes it. "What's exciting about RNA is that it's coming to the forefront of biochemical research. A lot has yet to be discovered and there's definitely exciting opportunity for creating drugs that will recognize RNA because there's lot of differences between viruses and bacteria, versus humans."

The RNA Institute's new research facility is set to open up next spring, and the school plans to hire several dozen new scientists next year.