By Doug Macron
In a bid to enhance the research conducted at its Center for RNA Molecular Biology, the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine plans to hire a bioinformaticist and a researcher with expertise in the non-coding RNA field.
Meanwhile, the school has also earmarked more than $500,000 to help establish an RNA core facility that is expected to give investigators campus-wide access to instrumentation and RNA-analysis expertise that is currently unavailable.
The center, according to its director, Timothy Nilsen, was originally established to "expand analyses of the molecular biology of parasites." Later, a faculty-development grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute was applied toward further building the center, he noted.
"One thing led to another, and it became an independent unit within the medical school," Nilsen told RNAi News this week. "We've expanded ever since. We now are the equivalent of a department and felt there was a real need to expand into genome-wide approaches, high-throughput sequencing, and that sort of thing, as well as [non-coding] RNAs and bioinformatics."
To meet that need, the center is looking to hire two tenure-track assistant professors of RNA biology, and has the support of a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to do so. The grant is worth $392,500 in its first year, and will be matched by Case Western.
"Our current faculty are very strong in the areas of molecular biology and chemistry," Nilsen wrote in the grant's abstract. However, "we lack expertise in … two important and exciting areas" — informatics and non-coding RNAs.
To address the first, the school is looking to hire someone who can help other researchers manage and interpret data generated, for instance, through high-throughput genome-wide analyses, while also maintain their own interests.
"Regarding the second area, it is abundantly clear that the next frontier in RNA research will be the analysis of the functions of non-coding RNAs," both large and small, the abstract states.
"I think large non-coding RNAs are a challenge for the future," Nilsen said. "I think we understand at least the outlines of what small RNAs are doing, but it's quite clear that there is a huge family of large non-coding RNAs. It's very mysterious as to what they do, how they function, and how important they are."
For example, mutations in a certain large non-coding RNA "are the leading risk factor for cardiac disease," he added. "How those mutations bring about that risk is not understood."
With the small non-coding field "heavily populated … we view large non-coding RNAs to be particularly interesting," the abstract states. And should the appropriate investigator be hired, that person will become "a leader in the field of large non-coding RNAs and benefit greatly from the center's expertise in molecular and biochemical approaches.
"Moreover, assuming the recruit takes a genome-wide approach to [the field, the researcher] will undoubtedly synergize with the informatics recruit," it notes.
For Nilsen, the meshing of work done by the new hires, not only with each other but with that of other investigators, is a key goal.
"These days, it's quite clear that collaborative science is a necessity," he said. "We're going to look for collaborative people [to bring on board,] and hopefully we'll be able to integrate the research that's done among all the faculty in the RNA center."
Nilsen said that the search process has already begun, and that he hopes the assistant professors can be recruited within the first quarter of 2010.
Once that is done, it will set the stage for the establishment of an RNA core facility that will "encompass all RNA-related technologies … [and] make RNA research accessible to the entire medical school," he explained.
"There are many questions in cancer biology, [for example,] and other fields that involve RNA biology, [but some] people are intimidated by the complexity of how to do the experiments," he noted. "This core facility will enable people to start asking questions that they wouldn't otherwise ask."
Specifically, the facility will provide the resources necessary to conduct "technically advanced" experiments such as polysome analysis and non-coding RNA isolation, Nilsen said. It will "do all of the standard things, but [allow investigators] to carry the analysis much further than what would normally be possible."
Already, Case Western has begun purchasing instrumentation for the core facility, and plans to hire up to four staffers to oversee its operation.
"We would look at PhD-level people who aren't looking for an academic job, but are looking for something that is challenging scientifically," he said.