Just two and a half years after it opened its doors with $7.4 million in funding from New York State and the National Institutes of Health, the RNA Institute at the University at Albany has received another significant boost with Sigma-Aldrich agreeing to donate libraries of hundreds of thousands of small RNAs for use by institute-affiliated researchers.
“This generous contribution from Sigma-Aldrich avails our institute with a rich resource generally afforded only to large pharmaceutical corporations,” Paul Agris, director of the RNA Institute, said in a statement.
Notably, Sigma-Aldrich will also provide the RNA Institute with advice on handling and storing the libraries, which include shRNA and microRNA collections, as well as permission to copy them as often as needed to support its faculty, Agris told Gene Silencing News this week.
“This raises the profile of the institute, in my mind, to the level of the most prestigious of institutions,” he said.
In addition, Sigma-Aldrich is donating the funds necessary to conduct three annual symposia and workshops covering RNA-related scientific and technical advancements. And while the company is not allowed to market its products on the University of Albany campus, it can engage institute scientists at the workshops and symposia to learn about how RNA research products are being used for reagent development and marketing purposes, Agris noted.
The RNA Institute was established in 2010 to be a “national research resource for RNA basic fundamental science and RNA technology development in areas that will support biomedical science, drug discovery, and diagnostics,” Agris explained. Specifically, its members focus on cancer biology, neurodegeneration, and infectious diseases, as well as technology development.
One of its primary functions is to create a network of interaction and collaboration between its members, and so “a responsibility of being affiliated with the institute is to help everybody else,” Agris said. “These kinds of interactions could be very short term — just helping someone out very quickly — or be very long term, [such as] creating research collaborations.”
Currently, the institute's roster of affiliated faculty includes roughly 50 principal investigators representing more than 250 scientists from collaborating institutions throughout New York. Its scientific advisory board features researchers with diverse backgrounds such as Rockefeller University's Thomas Tuschl and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Greg Hannon.
The institute also has a number of programs geared toward meeting the financial needs of its members. For example, its interdisciplinary pilot research program, which was established in 2009, provides funding to support early-stage research involving two or three independent, faculty-level investigators at different institutions, Agris noted. This year, the program earmarked a total of $95,000 to finance three one-year grants, as well as the continuation of ongoing research efforts.
Additionally, the institute subsidizes postdoc and graduate student travel to national and international scientific meetings for the purpose of presenting data on RNA metabolism, RNA binding proteins, and/or the use of RNA as a research tool.
With the financial assistance of Thermo Fisher Scientific, the RNA Institute also has created a venture fund for students that “doesn't exist anywhere else, as far as we know," Agris said. Participating students submit an invention disclosure and market analysis to the university, and winners receive $50,000 to conduct proof-of-concept research and $15,000 to assist with the development of a business and marketing plan.
Notably, eligible students are required to take a course in entrepreneurship at the University at Albany's business school, and must collaborate with MBA students, he said.
“Last year, there were two teams that were awarded $65,000 each … and [Thermo] Fisher has now provided us with a second year of funding because the first year was so successful,” Agris said, adding that the company is “looking very seriously at licensing at least one of the products” from the previous year's winners.
Early this year, the institute also received from Dell a donation of computer equipment for use in visualizing the structures of RNA using 3D imaging. And in June, the institute will open the doors to a new 15,000-square-foot facility that offers temporary laboratory space to members and students.
Now, with the Sigma-Aldrich donation, the RNA Institute has another resource with which to support its members.
According to the company, it will be providing the institute with its Mission Target ID human miRNA and non-coding RNA library, its LentiElite mouse shRNA library, and its human and mouse esiRNA and LentiPlex pooled shRNA libraries.
Agris stressed that while the institute will make the reagents available to its affiliates, it would not simply act as a clearinghouse for the research products.
Interested researchers would need to contact the RNA Institute with their request for the RNAi and miRNA products and explain the goals of their research, as well as the extent of their funding and the collaborative aspects of their project, he said.
With the instrumentation the institute has available and now the Sigma-Aldrich libraries, the institute isn't looking to become a core facility but rather offer a “collaborative resource,” Agris noted.
“We're not expecting someone to come in, put down their dollar bill, and leave with their research data,” he said. “We're looking at long-term collaborative research that leads to cooperative NIH, [National Science Foundation, and Department of Defense] proposals that, in the end, will provide financial resources back to the institute.”