Thursday, 15 August 2013 00:00

ExRNAs Get NIH Funding Boost, Placenta Gives exRNA Anti-Virals, Basic Research Gets Pharma Approval

Written by  ASCB Post Staff
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exRNAExtracellular RNAs or exRNAs are secreted by cells and travel in
tiny droplets to communicate to cells in other areas of the body.
Illustration courtesy of the NIH Common Fund.
The NIH is building its portfolio in the emerging field of extracellular RNAs, known as exRNAs, with the announcement of $17 million in awards to support basic research aimed at understanding this newly discovered type of cell-to-cell interaction. NIH believes that exRNAs could play a role in numerous conditions, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease. The Extracellular RNA Collaborative is a trans-NIH initiative, linking the efforts of five NIH institutes in pushing basic research into exRNAs.

"Expanding our understanding of this emerging scientific field could help us determine the role extracellular RNA plays in health and disease," NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement announcing the collaborative, "and unlocking its mysteries may provide our nation's scientists with new tools to better diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases."

The function of exRNAs in the body is only just beginning to unfold in the lab. The sheer variety of unexpected roles is illustrated by a recently published PNAS paper by Elizabeth Delorme-Axford, Carolyn Coyne, and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh. They describe novel exRNAs, microRNAs delivered in exosomes, from placental trophoblasts, cells of the placenta that contact maternal blood. These microRNAs provide resistance to virus infection, and may serve to protect the fetus.

Precisely how exRNAs function in this and other human processes in the vast intercellular world is still largely unknown. The NIH initiative is billed as support for basic work, looking to understand how exRNAs are made, secreted, distributed, and taken up by other cells. Whether exRNAs will be used in clinical applications depends on a better understanding of these basic mechanisms.

Which is what Elias Zerhouni, former NIH Director and current president for global R&D at Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant, told interviewer Cathy Yarbrough in Life Science Leader. Asked why Sanofi, unlike many of its major competitors, is not investing heavily in Alzheimer's disease clinical studies, Zerhoni said, "I think we have to do a lot more basic science work to understand what's going on. We really, at best, partially understand the cause of the disease. It's hard to come up with meaningful targets." The article cited a Zerhouni speech earlier this year in which Zerhouni adapted President Clinton's first presidential campaign slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," to explain recent spectacular failures in several Big Pharma drug trials. "It's the biology, stupid," Zerhouni quipped.

In recent weeks, other pharma leaders including James Sabry, Vice President of Genentech, have stressed the necessity of NIH and other government or nonprofit funding for the long-term basic research that yields a potential breakthrough discovery such as exRNA. Only then, they argue, can pharmaceutical and other bioscience companies in the private sector apply their expertise in development, clinical application, and marketing for new treatments.