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Still Growing, NCI s Gene Silencing Section Putting Together Conference on RNAi and Cancer


Though only a few months old and still in the process of building up its infrastructure, the Gene Silencing Section of the National Cancer Institute's Center for Cancer Research is already getting things moving. First up for the organization is an invitation-only meeting of academics and industry players focused on the use of RNA interference in combating childhood cancers.

Entitled "RNA Interference — Target Validation and Potential Therapeutic Applications for Childhood Cancer," the conference is set to take place on the evening of September 28 and all day on September 29 in Crystal City, Va. Sponsoring the meeting are NCI, the Children's Oncology Group, an NCI-supported clinical trials cooperative group, and the NIH Office of Rare Diseases.

According to the NCI, the event is focused on identifying "the most promising avenues for future research related to childhood cancer applications of RNAi. The hoped-for outcome from the meeting is an acceleration of the development of childhood cancer applications of RNAi," and ultimately treatments for such malignancies.

"It's really to stimulate the discussion of where RNAi might be used in terms of understanding pediatric cancers better, and also a way of accelerating the finding of new molecular targets for those [cancers] where we do not have good [ones]," Natasha Caplen, head of the Gene Silencing Section, told RNAi News. She noted that RNAi appears to be a particularly promising technology for pinning down targets for cancers that affect children.

"Adult cancers often result from multiple somatic genetic changes that eventually result in cancer," the NCI said in an announcement for the meeting. "Some childhood cancers have less complex genetic underpinnings, with a number of [them] being associated with specific chromosomal translocations that play pivotal roles in the development and maintenance of the cancer.

These translocations and their associated fusion mRNAs offer obvious targets for RNAi-based therapeutic approaches and also offer the potential for identifying specific downstream drug target candidates," the NCI said.

"In some cases, you also see quite profound differences in expression profiles that will relate to the prognosis for particular individuals with pediatric oncology," Caplen added. "I think there's a lot of [evidence] that RNAi might be able to help us understand why some pediatric tumors can respond very well to some drug regimes and others do not."

Additionally, pediatric cancer is often overlooked by the research community, Caplen said, and so stimulating interest in it, while taking advantage of a cutting-edge technology, becomes an especially important issue. This being the case, "a key part of the meeting is to try to attract young investigators from both the RNAi side of things and the pediatric oncology side of things," she said, particularly researchers up through the assistant professor level.

The meeting will feature a presentation by Caplen on the biology of RNAi, as well as talks by Lee Helman of the pediatric oncology branch of the NCI, and Robert Arceci, of Johns Hopkins, on biological aspects of pediatric oncology.

Also slated to speak on specific areas of RNAi are Chang-Zhen Chen of the Whitehead Institute; Norbert Perrimon of Harvard Medical School; Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Greg Hannon; Anastasia Khvorova from Dharmacon; David Lewis of Mirus; TGen's Spyro Mousses, Martin Woodle of Intradigm; John Rossi of the Beckman Research Institute; and the University of Iowa's Rajeev Vibhakar.

Meeting participants not presenting are expected to present a poster relevant to the application of RNAi to childhood cancers, according to the NCI. Those whose posters are selected will be provided financial support with travel and lodging expenses. Caplen said that about 50 posters, which will be published in Pediatric Blood and Cancer, will be accepted.

Ramping Up

While preparations for the RNAi meeting proceed, Caplen is also busy ramping up the CCR's Gene Silencing Section, which she was officially selected to head earlier this year (see RNAi News, 1/30/2004).

One of the first projects for Caplen is getting together the equipment necessary for establishing "databases for [linking] RNAi resources with the results of RNAi assays. We've built the collaborations [within NIH] to make that happen," she said. "The collaborating group will work on the actual coding for that."

As it stands now, "we're still slightly in early days, because we're still trying to get the infrastructure right and get people in," Caplen said. Currently, the section is composed of Caplen and a biologist, although a post-doc will be joining the group mid-June.

"We will be looking to expand in the next fiscal year," she said, adding that "we're pretty small, but as a lot of the work we're going to be doing is through collaboration, we can do quite a bit."

The collaborations, however, are not just internal ones. The Gene Silencing Section has been looking to find a cooperative research and development agreement partner from the private sector for some time to help with the development and validation of molecules that mediate RNAi in order to generate sequence-specific inhibition of the expression of genes involved in cancer, as well as control genes.

Caplen said that a letter of intent for this partnership has been signed, but that she could not comment on the arrangement in any detail because a final agreement has not been drawn up.

— DM

Details for Submitting Abstracts to the RNAi and Childhood Cancer Meeting:

• All abstracts must be submitted electronically via e-mail to [email protected] The e-mail title should include "RNAi Meeting Abstract" and the submitter's last name. The e-mail should also include contact information for the submitter, including title/position at his/her institution.

• Each abstract should contain an introductory sentence indicating the purposes of the study; a brief description of pertinent experimental procedures; a summary of the new, unpublished data; and a statement of the study's conclusions.

• Members of the program committee will evaluate the scientific quality of the abstracts on the basis of the following: Novelty of the research; significance of the findings; and relevance to the meeting's overall objectives. Special consideration will be given to young investigators in order to support their ability to attend the meeting and present their posters. Data previously presented may be included in the abstracts.

• The deadline for submission of abstracts is July 14, 2004. A confirmation of the abstract's receipt will be provided.

• For additional information on the program, contact Malcolm Smith at [email protected] For logistical questions, contact Jean Kazares at [email protected]

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