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La Jolla Institute Launches New RNAi Center

This article has been updated with quotes from La Jolla Institute President and CSO Mitchell Kronenberg.

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) –The La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology today launched a new center that will focus on using RNAi to study the genetics involved in human diseases and to develop new therapies to combat those maladies.

The new RNAi Center was funded with $12.6 million from the National Institutes of Health through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Scheduled to open today, the center will be open to and will collaborate with researchers at other institutes in the San Diego region, including the Salk Institute, Scripps Research Institute, and the University of California, San Diego.

La Jolla will house high-throughput automation and robotics technologies combined with extensive libraries of RNAi molecules.

"Today's opening of our RNAi Center represents a milestone for fueling research on the genetic basis of diseases," La Jolla Institute President and CSO Mitchell Kronenberg , who also is the RNAi Center's co-principal investigator, said in a statement.

"Our Center will focus the collective talents of an exemplary group of RNAi researchers on understanding the genetics behind disease processes of all kinds, and will use that knowledge toward developing new therapies to treat disease," Kronenberg said.

The center will undertake four initial lines of research that will leverage La Jolla's expertise in immunology, focusing on how the body recognizes bacteria and viruses and battles infection. These studies include efforts to understand how the immune system can harm the body, and what genes cause autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

"The idea is to enable people to use RNAi in a high-throughput format so they can screen lots of genes. Our facility is designed to allow screening for all or most of the genes involved in any important cellular process or disease process that you want to study," Kronenberg told GenomeWeb Daily News on Thursday.

"That involves having an integrated center with robotics for dispensing liquids and machines that can image in a high throughput, high content fashion. The purpose initially is to support four projects that address very fundamental problems in immunology, such as, How do you recognize a virus or a bacteria? How do you develop self-tolerance to your own body? How do you develop immune memory?" he told GWDN.

The RNAi Center Scientific Director Sonia Sharma said that RNAi research will lead to the next great leap, following the Human Genome Project, in understanding gene functioning in health and disease.

The Human Genome Project "was an enormous advance, but in some ways like receiving a book, where you can see the words on the page, but don't necessarily understand the true meaning of each word," she said. "RNAi lets us explore the function of each gene, so that we can determine how it fits into the disease process."

"We intend to develop efficient methods for RNAi screening in living organisms, which will allow us to analyze complex disease processes like Alzheimer's or cancer in ways never before possible," added Kronenberg. "Large-scale screening using mouse models will be revolutionary because it will greatly expand the current capabilities of RNAi."

Kronenberg said that the robotics tools coupled with the "comprehensive nature of the collections and libraries" will distinguish the RNAi center from most other institutions offering RNAi research capabilities.

The center received funding from stimulus money that was leftover from the ARRA program and was awarded directly through the Office of the Director, Kronenberg told GWDN.

The center also is funded by the La Jolla Institute and by a donation from the Japanese Pharmaceutical firm Kyowa Hakko Kirin, with whom the institute has a contract research agreement, Kronenberg said. He expects that in the future the center will be funded by contracts with outside investigators using its facilities and expertise, by other research grants, and by private donations.

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