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Archive - Aug 15, 2013

NIH Targets $17 Million to Study of Extracellular RNA and Cell-Cell Communication

The National Institutes of Health announced on August 13, 2013 that it will award $17 million this year for 24 research projects designed to improve scientists' understanding of a newly discovered type of cell-to-cell communication based on extracellular RNA, also called exRNA. Through these awards, scientists will explore basic exRNA biology and develop tools and technologies that apply new knowledge about exRNA to the research, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. To unlock the potential of this new scientific field, the awarded research projects will address conditions in which exRNA could play a role, including many types of cancer, bone marrow disorders, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and multiple sclerosis. The collaborative, cross-cutting Extracellular RNA Communication program is supported by the NIH Common Fund and led by a trans-NIH team that includes the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS); National Cancer Institute (NCI); National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "We have a tremendous opportunity to explore a recently discovered novel way that cells communicate," said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. "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." Scientists think exRNA can regulate many functions in the body and may have an important role in a variety of diseases, but they still know very little about basic exRNA biology. Most RNA works inside cells to translate genes into proteins that are necessary for organisms to function.

World’s Largest Owl Is Indicator of Primary Forest Health in Russia’s Far East

A study spearheaded by the Wildlife Conservation Society and the University of Minnesota has shown that the world's largest owl -- and one of the rarest -- is also a key indicator of the health of some of the last great primary forests of Russia's Far East. The study found that Blakiston's fish owl relies on old-growth forests along streams for both breeding and to support healthy populations of its favorite prey: salmon. The large trees provide breeding cavities for the enormous bird, which has a two-meter (six-foot) wingspan. And when these dead, massive trees topple into adjacent streams, they disrupt water flow, forcing the gushing river around, over, and under these new obstacles. The result is stream channel complexity: a combination of deep, slow-moving backwaters and shallow, fast-moving channels that provide important microhabitats critical to salmon in different developmental stages. The study was published online on August 6, 2013 in the journal Oryx. Authors include Dr. Jonathan Slaght of the Wildlife Conservation Society, Dr. R. J. Gutiérrez of the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Sergei Surmach of the Institute of Biology and Soils (Russian Academy of Sciences). The authors studied the foraging and nesting characteristics of Blakiston's fish owl in Primorye, Russia, where they looked at nesting habitat over 20,213 square kilometers (7,804 square miles). They found that large old trees and riparian old-growth forest were the primary distinguishing characteristics of both nest and foraging sites. The authors say that management and conservation of old-growth forests is essential for sustaining this species because they are central to the owls' nesting and foraging behavior.

Analysis of Vitamin D-Related Molecular Switches Predicts Childhood Bone Mass

Researchers at the MRC (Medical Research Council) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton in the UK, have demonstrated that the degree to which a gene related to vitamin D action is switched on or off, when measured at birth, predicts bone density of the child at four years of age. The results were published online on August 1, 2013 in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. In the study, 230 boys and girls were assessed at 4 years as part of the Southampton Women's Survey (SWS), a large ongoing mother-offspring cohort. The children visited the Osteoporosis Centre at Southampton General Hospital for measurement of their bone size and density using a DXA scanner. The researchers were able to measure the extent to which a particular gene, RXRA, is switched on or off by measuring epigenetic marks on the DNA sequence of the gene in cells taken from umbilical cord tissue which had been collected at birth. They found that the less marking (which usually means greater gene activity), at birth, the greater the bone density of the child at four years old. Furthermore, one of the epigenetic marks was related to the mother's blood vitamin D concentrations in late pregnancy. Dr. Nicholas Harvey, Senior Lecturer at the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit, University of Southampton, who led this project said, "RXRA is essential for the action of vitamin D and several other hormones; taken together with the relationship we found between mothers' vitamin D levels and RXRA marking, this study provides further support for the potential importance of vitamin D in pregnancy.

“Zone in with Zon”—30 Years of Automated Amidite DNA Oligo Synthesis

Dr. Gerald Zon’s latest “Zone in with Zon” blog post, August 12, 2013, hails the introduction of automated synthesis of DNA oligonucleotides (oligos) in 1983 by Applied Biosystems (ABI) as “the most enabling biotechnology yet.” Dr. Zon briefly outlines the history of this technology, beginning with the development of the phosphoramidite (amidite) methodology for oligo synthesis by Professor Marvin H. Caruthers’s research group at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This group included Serge Beaucage, Mark Matteucci, Bill Efcavitch, Curt Becker, and Lincoln McBride. The latter three joined ABI to commercialize automated oligo synthesis. Beaucage joined Beckman, which introduced its amidite-based DNA oligo synthesizer shortly after ABI. Matteuci joined Genentech to work on oligo synthesis. Dr. Zon described his role, first as a test site for ABI’s first amidite-based oligo synthesizer while he was at FDA/NIH, and later, after joining ABI in 1986 to help commercialize new applications. At ABI, Dr. Zon focused on the development of modified oligos as potential antisense inhibitors of mRNA function. In 1992, Lynx Therapeutics was spun out of ABI in order to focus on antisense therapeutics. Today, Dr. Zon reports that this field is led by Isis Pharmaceuticals and that company has recently announced FDA approval of an antisense drug to treat familial hypercholesterolemia. The Isis CEO described the drug as “the first systemic antisense drug to reach the market.” Dr. Zon went on to describe the “stunning scalability” of automated oligo synthesis, noting that the production scale of the first automated oligo synthesizer was 1 micromolar and today is approximately 750 millimolar. In addition, there are now manufacturing methods for producing small batch sizes for many thousands of different oligos. Dr.