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NIH Awards $17M for Studies into Extracellular RNA

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The National Institutes of Health said today that it has awarded $17 million to fund 24 new research projects seeking to understand how extracellular RNA is involved in communication between cells and how they may be used as biomarkers for diseases.

The funding under the new Extracellular RNA Communication program, paid for through the NIH Common Fund, will fuel efforts to examine exRNA biology and to develop tools for applying new discoveries about exRNA in research and in disease diagnosis and treatment.

"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," NIH Director Francis Collins said in a statement.

"To harness exRNA's enormous potential for diagnostics and therapeutics in a broad range of diseases, we first need to understand more about different types of exRNA, how cells make and release it, how it travels through the body, how it targets and affects specific cells, and how the amount and type of exRNA can change in disease," James Anderson, director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, added in the statement.

The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences will administer 18 of the awards, including 10 projects seeking to develop biomarkers from exRNA and eight efforts aimed at designing new ways to use exRNA in treatments.

The National Cancer Institute will oversee five studies that will address how cells make and release exRNA, how and where it moves through fluids to other cells, and how it can change cellular function.

Also under the program, The National Institute on Drug Abuse has awarded a grant to Baylor College of Medicine to house the data generated through all of these exRNA studies and to create a public ExRNA Atlas website that will serve as a community resources for exRNA research standards, protocols, data tools, and technologies.

The biomarker-focused projects overseen by NCATS will involve studies seeking to test out the clinical utility of using exRNA to develop biomarkers in a range of disease areas. For example, investigators at Brigham and Women's Hospital will study microRNAs in the blood of patients with multiple sclerosis to see if they can be used as markers for the disease or for diagnosing or monitoring its progression.

In another effort, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University will use a grant to try to find out if exRNA could potentially be used as a diagnostic biomarker for Alzheimer's disease that could enable the disease to be diagnosed earlier.

Other projects will seek to find out if exRNA can be used as biomarkers for human glioma, gastric and hepatocellular cancer, placental dysfunction during pregnancy, and to predict outcomes after brain injury, among others.

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