The National Institutes of Health awarded $17 million for its new Extracellular RNA Communication Program aimed at decoding exRNA signals as a form of cell-to-cell communication. This new program will focus on understanding the basic biology of exRNAs and developing techniques to use exRNAs as potential biomarkers and clinical therapies.
Recent studies have confirmed that small RNAs can be transported to other cells, potentially affecting gene expression and downstream cellular processes. The presence of exRNAs also has been associated with diseases in humans, including life-threatening cancers, neurological disorders, and heart and kidney diseases. However, the specific transport mechanisms and functions of exRNAs remain a mystery.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to explore a recently discovered, novel way that cells communicate,” stated NIH Director Francis S. Collins in a press release. “Expanding our understanding of this emerging scientific field could help us determine the role extracellular RNA plays in health and disease, and unlocking its mysteries may provide our nation’s scientists with new tools to better diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases.”
To date, the NIH Common Fund has funded 24 projects within four primary focus areas:
- 1. biogenesis, distribution, uptake and function;
- 2. biomarker development;
- 3. clinical therapy development and
- 4. data management and resource repository.
A call for funding in a fifth focus area has been reissued this fall to develop a human exRNA reference profile from existing healthy blood and body fluid sample collections.
Two American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology members are among the awardees who have received program funding. Anil Sood of the MD Anderson Cancer Center will lead a project titled “Novel Extracellular RNA-Based Combinatorial RNA Inhibition Therapy.” The project will focus on blocking the export and uptake of exRNAs associated with ovarian cancer and other tumor-derived exRNAs.
Mark Gerstein of Yale University and co-investigators will spearhead the data management and analysis effort. The team will develop an exRNA atlas that will map exRNA communications within the human body. Program data and associated data-analysis tools will be made available to the public through the NIH program website, in addition to data deposition in the NCBI’s dbGaP database.
Learn more about program details and funding opportunities at the NIH ExRNA Communication Program website: http://commonfund.nih.gov/exrna/.
Donna Kridelbaugh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance science writer and editor, specializing in career-development topics. She is founder of the Science Mentor blog project, which is focused on providing a step-by-step guide to self-mentoring for scientists. Learn more about her blog at about.me/science_mentor or follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/science_mentor.