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Foundation Report Recommends 'Virtual Institute' to Advance RNA Research Across Europe

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The European Science Foundation is recommending the creation of a "virtual institute for RNA research" or network of laboratories across Europe focused on RNA research, with the goal of better capitalizing on ribonucleic acid's potential for treating a wide range of diseases.

The foundation made its recommendation in a 35-page report called "RNA World: a new frontier in biomedical research," written by a panel of biologists at ESF, an independent, nongovernmental organization whose members include 79 national funding agencies, research performing agencies, academies and "learned societies" or scholarly organizations from 30 countries.

ESF said it envisions the virtual RNA institute consisting of locally-funded, multidisciplinary centers with research groups in disciplines, such as biology, biochemistry, chemistry, genetics, bioinformatics, biophysics, structural analysis, microbiology, plant sciences, and clinical medicine. The centers would promote training of a generation of young scientists, PhD students, and postdoctoral researchers, and could also help deliver education programs specializing in RNA research, which the report said is lacking.

"As in almost all areas of life sciences, a growing demand for qualified scientists can be foreseen, especially in bioinformatics. Thus, we recommend financial support for the training of a new generation of bioinformaticians," the report concluded.

That support, according to the report, should be offered by the European Commission — which now funds 27 individual RNA research projects — as well as ESF member organizations, charities and public-private partnerships. However, the report did not estimate the cost of creating the virtual institute or carrying out its initiatives.

ESF identified nine scientific priority areas for RNA research, including the construction of an RNA expression atlas of living species; epigenetics with an RNA basis; RNA in bacterial infections and pathogenesis and RNA-based treatments for infections; and alternative RNA splicing.

The report also identified as priorities the structural and functional characterization of RNA-protein complexes; RNA structure and molecular dynamics, including high-throughput approaches for RNA structure mapping in vitro and in a cellular environment; visualization of RNA localization and transport; the application of RNA modifiers in the food industry; and the development and delivery of RNA therapeutics for humans and animals.

The report reflected ideas discussed at three workshops attended by 15 to 25 experts, as well as a consensus conference attended by approximately 100 scientists and policy makers that took place between late 2007 and early 2009.

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