A number of RNAi researchers in Germany, along with Cenix BioScience, have received a shot in the arm from the German government: This month, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research announced that it will fund an RNAi technology consortium as part of the €135 million ($162 million) second round of funding from the National Genome Research Network, a program for functional genomics-driven research into disease.
The consortium, called “RNAi technological platform for studies of gene function from cells to the entire organism,” expects to receive €7 million ($8.4 million) over three years, according to Wolfgang Wurst, who is one of the two coordinators of the project and professor at GSF-Research Center for Environment and Health in Neuherberg, as well as head of the molecular neurogenetics group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich. Of this amount, €500,000 ($600,000) will go to Cenix, which will contribute an additional €500,000 out of its own pocket.
The aim of the overall project is to further develop, standardize, apply, and make available RNAi technology in two areas: Cell-based high-throughput screening and in vivo applications in mice.
The proposal resulted from two initially separate efforts by researchers focusing on cell-based and in vivo applications, respectively. However, after meeting each other, they “decided to build a consortium around this technology and get the key members in Germany involved,” Wurst said.
“Most of the detailed analysis of RNAi mechanism and specificity so far has gone on in cells, and so it made sense for those two to be put into a common platform,” said Tony Hyman, the other project coordinator and a director at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG) in Dresden.
The following research groups are involved in the project: Cenix; the German Resource Center for Genome Research (RZPD) in Berlin; MPI-CBG; the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg; The Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin; and the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg.
Cenix will be involved in selecting target sequences for making silencing reagents and validating their performance experimentally in cells. The company, which just moved out of the MPI-CBG into its own space two weeks ago , also plans to make technologies stemming from the consortium commercially available on a service basis. “Cenix is the main outlet for commercialization from this effort,” Christophe Echeverri, Cenix’s CEO and CSO, told RNAi News. Moreover, the company will serve as a point of contact for other companies interested in licensing technologies from the consortium.
According to Wurst, it has yet to be determined whether or not Cenix will have the first right of refusal to these technologies.
RZPD, a non-profit research service provider, plans to generate RNAi libraries, in collaboration with a group led by Frank Buchholz at MPI-CBG. Buchholz, along with colleague Tony Hyman, the other coordinator of the consortium, will develop methods to test the specificity of RNAi-based experiments in cell-based screening assays, using RNAi resistant transgenes.
A research team led by Jan Ellenberg and Rainer Pepperkok at EMBL plans to conduct genome-wide RNAi screens using cell chips and microscopy in a semi-automated fashion. They will then study the contribution of genes to certain signaling pathways involved in disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Results from cell-based screens will likely help those researchers that apply RNAi in mice. “If there are interesting genes coming out of these large-scale screens, we may check them as well in vivo,” Wurst said.
His group — along with Ralf K hn’s group, which is also at GSF — plans to develop and standardize viral delivery in embryonic mice, vector-based delivery in ES cells using inducible systems, naked delivery, and “other delivery systems which are more efficient,” Wurst said.
Once these methods are established, Wurst’s group plans to study a number of candidate disease genes involved in neurodegeneration, psychiatric diseases, and cancer.
A group led by Bernhard Herrmann at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin will use vector-based RNAi to analyze signaling pathways in development and disease in mid-gestation mouse embryos.
Researchers led by Wieland Huttner at MPI-CBG will study genes involved in neurogenesis in early mouse embryos using electroporation.
Roland Eils’ group at DKFZ will provide bioinformatic services, including correlating RNAi to endogenous genes, creating software for cell-based high-throughput screens, and coordinating the data flow between different labs.
A spokeswoman for the National Genome Research Network told RNAi News that the German government decided to fund RNAi “because it was considered an important technology for health-related genome research.”
Whether the technology lives up to these expectations remains to be seen, but the project provides researchers with the means to test this. “[The BMBF] realized they have to invest in promising technologies to see if they can hold the promise,” said Wurst.