BETHESDA, Md. — Representatives from a dozen RNAi reagent and tool companies met here this week at the National Institutes of Health to discuss their products and field questions from NIH representatives as the agency considers how to expand the availability of RNAi technologies to its researchers.
During the event, officials from the biggest players in the RNAi research tools market offered an overview of their core technologies to members of a recently formed committee charged with making recommendations to the NIH’s scientific directors on how best to improve their institutes’ access to RNAi technologies.
According to Brian Oliver, chief of the developmental genomics section of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and member of the RNAi committee, the meeting was partly a sort of tradeshow for the committee members who might not be aware of all the RNAi technologies available.
NIH scientists typically attend scientific conferences rather than broader, industry-focused ones where companies are able to showcase their wares, he told RNAi News. As such, the RNAi committee decided to ask firms within the RNAi research space to meet at the NIH campus to make focused, 10-minute presentations for committee members.
The companies that presented at the NIH event, which was first announced in November (see RNAi News, 11/8/2007), were Biolog, Cellecta, Invitrogen, Amaxa Biosystems, Open Biosystems, Integrated DNA Technologies, Applied Biosystems, Sigma-Aldrich, Cellectricon, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Qiagen, and Bioo Scientific.
After the one-day meeting — which also included presentations by NIH officials on the various business and purchasing mechanisms used by the agency, discussions on low-throughput and high-throughput RNAi screens, and the use of RNAi agents in vivo and in culture — the RNAi committee is expected to brief the NIH’s scientific directors on the event, Oliver said.
And while the committee will also make recommendations to the directors, “ultimately, [they] will have to decide what they want to do” to improve access to RNAi technologies by the NIH’s intramural researchers.
‘Kind of Behind’
According to Oliver, it was in late spring or early summer that NIH’s scientific directors established the RNAi committee amid concerns that the agency might be “kind of behind” the overall scientific community in its use of RNAi technologies.
Natasha Caplen, a senior scientist in the National Cancer Institute and head of the Center for Cancer Research’s gene silencing section and member of the RNAi committee, noted during a presentation at the meeting that since 2005, 18 of the NIH’s 27 institutes published data from experiments in which RNAi technology was used.
“A broad range of the [NIH] institutes … have used RNAi in parts of their studies,” she said, adding that in the past, some of the RNAi field’s most important discoveries, including early work describing RNAi in Drosophila and her own pioneering efforts demonstrating RNAi in mammalian cells, have come out of NIH labs.
“What we are interested in is making procurement easier. For the average bench-top scientist, we want everything to be streamlined … so they can be more productive [and] do work asking scientific questions and not talking to vendors.”
“But … we want to make [it so that] even more investigators within all of the institutes who want to use [RNAi technologies] can use these resources and think about how it can be applied to their research,” Caplen said.
Specifically, the NIH aims to “ensure that all NIH intramural program-based investigators can access the appropriate RNAi-based tools and technologies and, where necessary, the technical expertise that they need to enhance their research,” she said.
In RNAi, “we now have a biological tool that we can use to test many hypotheses that are coming from the large amount of genetic, expression, and functional data that are now available,” Caplen added.
Still, making this tool easily accessible to NIH researchers is not so straightforward.
RNAi has the potential to “impact a very broad range of scientific goals,” she said. “But this means that there aren’t one-fits-all answers for any individual institute and any individual investigator.
“The scientific directors just want to know what … we need to do and how … we pay for it,” Caplen said. “But we all know that that’s a little bit more difficult with this technology.”
For example, Oliver said that the RNAi committee has considered a purchasing model under which the agency would purchase a large siRNA or shRNA collection and set up “what amounts to a storefront on the NIH campus that would distribute [products] to individual users.”
While this approach would allow the NIH to buy large quantities of reagents at low prices, “we [worry] about the risk to the NIH by committing to a [specific] library when it has to be re-designed with every release of the [human] genome,” he said.
One thing the committee is certain about is that it’s “not interested in being exclusive,” Oliver told those attending the meeting. “What we are interested in is making procurement easier,” he said. “For the average bench-top scientist, we want everything to be streamlined … so they can be more productive [and] do work asking scientific questions and not talking to vendors.”
But just how that goal will be achieved is not clear, he pointed out.
“We’ve met a number of times and had discussions among ourselves, and brought you all in here to get your perspective,” Oliver said. “We’re going to make some recommendations to the scientific directors and ultimately [they will] decide how they want to buy in on [the] various kinds of options for” RNAi.