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With $12 million in Funding, Harvard and MIT Researchers Look to RNAi to Fight Bioterrorism

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The recent push to bolster US biodefense research, which includes $1.75 billion allocated to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases this year, has led to the funding of a multi-faceted program to explore whether RNAi can contribute to the effort.

With roughly $12 million from NIAID, researchers from Harvard’s CBR Institute for Biomedical Research and MIT began on Aug.1 a four-and-a-half year collaborative effort to look at “the translation of RNA interference and the issues surrounding its use,” investigator and Harvard Medical School associate professor Judy Lieberman told RNAi News.

“Most NIAID priority viral pathogens are RNA viruses,” she wrote in the project’s abstract. “This program will study both fundamental and applied aspects of RNAi, since many of its fundamental features in mammalian cells are still unknown or poorly understood. “

One project under the program, being headed up by MIT’s Phil Sharp, is focused on the “interaction of RNA interference with viral infections,” Lieberman said, and will explore viral mechanisms of blocking RNAi and how the induction of the interferon system by viruses interferes with it.

A second project is being led by Lieberman and CBR colleague Klaus Rajewsky, “and is designed to look at the issues of using RNA interference for therapy in mouse model systems,” as well as the development of tissue-specific vector-based delivery systems for siRNAs.

MIT assistant professor Luk Van Parijs is leading a third project, Lieberman said. “He is looking at RNAi-based mouse models to study the effect of key immune response genes to infection” and what effect the silencing of these genes has on infection.

A fourth project, being conducted under the leadership of CBR’s Premlata Shankar andN. Manjunath, is the one most directly applicable to biodefense. It will examine the use of siRNAs in preventing and controlling flaviviruses — which include the Dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis, and West Nile viruses — and poxviruses. Lieberman noted that Manjunath is also in charge of a BL3 tissue culture and animal facility, which is to be updated and reequipped to handle the hazardous pathogens used by the researchers.

Lieberman said that researchers from the different groups are to meet monthly to discuss their progress and findings, and that each year the project’s accomplishments will be detailed in a report to NIH. Data are also expected to be made public in papers and academic talks, she added.

This program comes in the wake of NIAID’s strategic plan for biodefense research, released in Feb., stating that it would boost its focus on research into preventing and treating diseases caused by biological agents. This year, the Bush administration allocated a total of $5.9 billion to the national biodefense budget.

— DM

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