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UCSB Researchers Win $1.25M Keck Grant To Fund Broad microRNA Research Initiative

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UCSB Researchers Win $1.25M Keck Grant
To Fund Broad microRNA Research Initiative

The University of California, Santa Barbara, announced this week that it has been awarded a two-year grant worth $1.25 million from the WM Keck Foundation's Medical Research Program to support a broad microRNA research initiative.

According to Ken Kosik, a UCSB professor of neuroscience and director of the miRNA project, the initiative has three components: a systems-level analysis of miRNAs, an investigation of the role miRNAs play in stem cell differentiation, and research into the effect of miRNAs on tumors.

Commenting on the first portion of the effort, Kosik said that he and his colleagues at UCSB "are interested in trying to study microRNA targets more broadly than just one gene at a time. Currently a lot of this work is done by tagging a putative target with luciferase and seeing if there is any change in the expression of the reporter. What we want to do is try to approach this by looking at whole-target fields."

To do so, he said that his team would employ many existing techniques used to examine the proteome and transcriptome "under a variety of different expression conditions for microRNAs," as well as "the real-time multiplex PCR techniques developed by Applied Biosystems for profiling large numbers of microRNAs, and it's a very sensitive technique." Kosik noted that he is currently preparing a manuscript for publication detailing research already conducted using the ABI techniques.


"We certainly would love to get some therapeutics through this project — that's definitely a goal. But I don't think you can get there without having a deeper understanding of the whole basic process of microRNAs."

As for the second component of the miRNA initiative, Kosik noted that "because we have a lot of tools for profiling microRNAs, we have begun to find changes in microRNA expression during the differentiation process. Those microRNAs that change during differentiation are excellent candidates for regulators of the differentiation process … [and] we want to try to validate those [miRNAs] and see what role they actually have," he said.

The third part of the initiative builds off a paper Kosik published in Cancer Research last July describing miR-21 as a very highly over-expressed microRNA in glioblastomas. "We also found that if we inhibit miR-21 using 2' O-methyl techniques or locked antagonists we could inhibit the growth of the tumor cells by increasing their apoptosis," Kosik said. With the Keck grant, he intends to further investigate miR-21 and other miRNAs that may play a role in cancer development.

The three portions of the miRNA initiative will be conducted simultaneously in collaboration with six other UCSB researchers: Frank Doyle, professor of chemical engineering; Samir Mitragotri, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Linda Petzold, professor of mechanical and environmental engineering; Joel Rothman, professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; and Boris Shraiman, professor of physics.

"What is special about this particular Keck [grant] is the group of collaborators that have come together to the table to do this, Kosik said, adding that it is the first Keck grant to be awarded to UCSB. "It's a little different than most collaborative efforts when you look at the backgrounds of the people involved."

Kosik and his colleagues are also being assisted by three outside consultants including California Institute of Technology researcher and Calando Pharmaceuticals co-founder Mark Davis.

Ultimately, Kosik said that he hopes the work funded by the Keck grant will lead to the development of new therapeutics. At the same time, however, he expects the research will also broaden the overall understanding of miRNAs.

"We certainly would love to get some therapeutics through this project — that's definitely a goal," he said. "But I don't think you can get there without having a deeper understanding of the whole basic process of microRNAs."

— Doug Macron ([email protected])

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