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RNAi Roundup: Qiagen Offers RNAi Expertise to SARS Scientists; Antisense Beats RNAi to SARS Drug Starting Line; RNAi Research Reveals Secrets of Algal Sex Cycle

NEW YORK, April 25 -Qiagen has lent its RNAi expertise to scientists on the front lines of SARS research, stepping in to contribute its RNA interference design resource, along with its custom siRNA and other sample preparation and nucleic acid chemistry products to laboratories in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, and Canada, the company said this week.


The design resource, available online, allows users to order short interfering RNAs by sequence or by accession number, or to order pre-designed siRNAs.


"SARS is the first major outbreak in which state-of-the-art molecular diagnostic techniques are being employed to rapidly create diagnostic and therapeutic solutions to address the challenges

it poses," said Helge Bastian, vice president strategic marketing of Qiagen, in a statement. "We are proud to contribute to increasing the speed in which such solutions are found."


The company also is offering nucleic acid sample handling and purification products, affinity enzymes for RT-PCR, oligonucleotide primers, and gene sets to clinical reference laboratories as part of its SARS-related efforts. The QueenMaryHospital in Hong Kong has adopted the company's QIAmp chemistry on its BioRobot 9603, the company said, and the Bernardt Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany also used RNA isolation kits from Qiagen to develop SARS-virus detection assays.


Qiagen's Gene Silencing Team has meanwhile begun offering its custom siRNAs in a 96-well format. This product is designed for the "high-throughput needs of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries," Patrick Weiss, director of gene silencing at Qiagen, said last week.


In the therapeutic arena, antisense company AVI BioPharma of Portland, Oregon, has beaten the RNAi companies to the starting line in the area of SARS therapeutics, announcing today that it has developed an antisense antiviral therapy for the coronavirus linked to SARS.


AVI BioPharma, which also recently released an antisense therapeutic for West Nile virus, plans to deliver the compound to the NIH for in vitro testing, according to company spokeswoman Wendy Carhart. The company plans to send the compound to several other academic centers for testing, but is still negotiating these arrangements, Carhart said.


It may take some time to validate this compound for use in humans - longer than the several-months timeframe that a London Times article reported earlier this week - but AVI BioPharma is optimistic about the possibilities. "AVI has been quite successful looking at two other single-stranded RNA viruses," said Carhart. However, she acknowledged, the coronavirus and SARS are different than previously characterized RNA viruses.


Meanwhile, the newly renamed Sirna Therapeutics (formerly Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals), announced this week the formal closing of its $48 million financing round, and the appointment of three new board members.


The financing, in which Sprout Group invested $24 million, also included investments from Venrock Associates, Oxford Bioscience Partners, Techno Venture Management, and Granite Global Ventures.  The company raised the financing on the condition that it would concentrate future efforts on RNAi therapeutics.


In addition to contributing funding, these venture capital firms also contributed the three new board members: James Niedel of the Sprout Group, Bryan Roberts of Venrock Associates, and Douglas Fambrough of Oxford Bioscience Partners.


Niedel is the former chief science and technology officer for GlaxoSmithKline, and worked at Glaxo since 1988. Fambrough is a former genomics researcher from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Roberts, before joining Venrock, worked at Kidder Peabody & Co., Inc. in investment banking.


In the RNAi intellectual property area, CytRx of Los Angeles said Monday it exclusively licensed from the University of Massachusetts Medical School a portfolio of applications for RNAi-based gene silencing technology in obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.


CytRx said the suite of applications it is licensing exclusively from UMMS "may be considered the world's largest proprietary portfolio" of such technology. UMMS faculty member Craig Mello and Andrew Fire of the Carnegie Institution of Washington developed the approach, which uses RNA to selectively turn off the harmful genes of infectious viruses or malignant tumor cells, in 1997.


On the research front, groups published papers this week in which they reported using RNAi to find eight genes involved in ubiquinone biosynthesis in C. elegans (See the FASEB Journal, April 22); the function of tropomodulin3 on cell motility (Journal of Cell Biology, April 21); expression and function of TbMSP genes in African trypanosomes (also Journal of Cell Biology, April 21) ; and to trace DNA damage response pathways in mammalian cells. (also Journal of Cell Biology, April 21).


Additionally, demonstrating how 'sexy' this new RNAi technology can be, Kaiyo Huang and Christoph Beck from the University of Freiburg Institute of Biology published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science  online today, in which they used RNA interference to demonstrate that the blue-light receptor phototropin controls the sexual life cycle in the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.


Finally, in RNAi marketing and promotion efforts, MWG Biotech and Dharmacon

wrapped up their siRNA Roadshow in the UK this week. The tour, which included dates in London, Cambridge, Manchester, and Edinburgh, included speakers from both companies. MWG said that most venues were "fully booked" and that it was exploring expanding the tour to Ireland.

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