La Trobe University is the only institution outside America selected to take part in a new five-year $17 million science program launched by the peak United States’ medical science funding body, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The program comprises a consortium of more than 30 universities involved in 24 research projects and will probe the next frontier in the search for biological molecules to diagnose and treat diseases including cancer.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Professor Keith Nugent said US-based NIH support for foreign institutions including Australian researchers was extremely rare.
He said La Trobe biochemist Dr Suresh Mathivanan will take part in the program which aims to advance critical research into a recently discovered way by which cells in our body communicate with each other via Ribonucleic acid (RNA), the single strand cousin of DNA.
Research focused on understanding disease
‘The US $375,000 grant and his role in the program signifies high-level recognition for the calibre of Dr Mathivanan’s work and La Trobe’s leadership in research focused at understanding disease,’ Professor Nugent said.
Dr Mathivanan, who heads a team of ten biochemistry researchers at the La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science (LIMS), says the special form of RNA being studied – known as extracellular or exRNA – travels around the body in little packages called exosomes and plays an important role in the way cells regulate and express genes.
For example, he says one potential application of these exosomes is in targeted gene delivery to treat cancer. ‘Recently, there is significant interest in the use of exosomes as personalised targeted drug delivery vehicles for therapeutic use and as source of biomarkers for disease diagnosis.
‘With this additional funding from NIH and new discoveries, one day it may be possible to use exosomes as delivery vehicles targeting RNA in breast or colorectal cancer tissues to control the amount of deleterious proteins.’
Communication between cells
Dr Mathivanan says it wasn’t until 2007 that scientists realised RNA and exosomes could play a role in communicating between cells. Up until then it was thought RNA was only involved in the internal functioning of the cells.
‘We now know they circulate through the body and affect cells at a great distance.’
The NIH program aims to discover fundamental biological principles about these classes of exRNA and develop a catalogue of all exRNA found in human body fluids such as urine and blood. Dr Mathivanan says the overall program, which is funded for more than $17 million, is split into five projects.
Announcing the funding in the US, NIH Director Dr Francis Collins said ’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 disease.’
The NIH said 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.
La Trobe University is part of the bioinformatics project being carried out in partnership with Professor Aleksandar Milosavljevic’s group at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Other US institutions involved are Yale University (Professor Mark Gerstein), The Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute (Professor David Galas), and a number of campuses of the University of California.
Dr Mathivanan says the bioinformatics project deals with the storage, analysis and dissemination of research data generated through the NIH funded consortium via a web portal, so that any significant discoveries in the field can be enlisted as quickly as possible in the fight against cancer.
A NH&MRC Biomedical Research and LIMS Fellow, Dr Mathivanan, attributes his success in becoming part of this prestigious project to the support from LIMS, five years of research into exosomes and colorectal cancer and a joint research article published last year in PLOS Biology which involved the collaboration of 70 research labs in his field from around the world.