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UMMS Taps Four-Person Board to Head Planned RNA Therapeutics Institute

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By Doug Macron

In a bid to take greater advantage of the varied expertise of key faculty members, the University of Massachusetts Medical School has revised its leadership plan for its proposed RNA Therapeutics Institute and established a four-person executive group to oversee the center rather than a single director.

At the same time, UMMS has decided to expand the focus of the institute to include research into a variety of RNA medicines, rather than just RNAi-based ones, and changed the center's name accordingly.

"It was the sense of the scientific community … that the institute should broadly address therapeutics that arise out of advanced understandings of RNA biology," rather than focus solely on RNAi, UMMS Dean Terry Flotte told RNAi News this week.

In 2007, UMMS began laying the groundwork for an RNAi research center after Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick proposed spending $1 billion over 10 years to grow the state’s life sciences sector (see RNAi News, 8/9/2007). Part of that plan called for the creation of a research facility to “highlight and build on the work” of Nobel Prize-winning RNAi pioneer Craig Mello.

About a year later, the Life Sciences Act was signed into law, and UMMS received a $90 million funding commitment to support the construction of the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster to house the RNAi research center, as well as centers for gene therapy, stem-cell biology, and regenerative medicine (see RNAi News, 6/26/2008).

At the time, Flotte told RNAi News that the school had begun the search for a director to oversee the RNAi facility and handle the hiring of researchers to fill out its roster.

"We were working toward finding directors for each of the components of the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster, and we … had [two] great candidates for the RNA Therapeutics [Institute] director position," he said this week. But in each case, personal reasons prevented the candidates from being able to accept the job and move to Worcester, Mass.

During this time, four UMMS researchers charged with helping in the search for a director conceived a plan under which they would share the directorship. Led by Mello, the group included Phillip Zamore, Victor Ambros, and Melissa Moore.

"When they came to us with this, I found it very intriguing," Flotte told RNAi News, firstly because UMMS has never used this sort of joint directorship approach within any of its research institutes before.

"We don't have any other models like this, but then we don't have any other people like this," he noted.

According to Flotte, the plan presented by the four researchers detailed how the responsibilities of the director would be divided so that none of the investigators would need to scale back work within their own labs, and "embodies a spirit of collaborative, non-hierarchical management" maintained by UMMS.

"I was really persuaded that this could be a great construct," he said.

Importantly, the creation of this so-called executive group is also in line with a longstanding mandate that the institute should foster programs in basic science, as well as therapeutics-focused research. And while RNAi remains a key research area for the institute, the interests of the directors extend beyond the gene-silencing technology, helping drive the decision to change the RNAi Therapeutics Institute into the RNA Therapeutics Institute.

For instance, Mello is widely known for his pioneering work in RNAi, but largely focuses on model organisms. Zamore has been exploring therapeutic uses of the technology for conditions such as Huntington's disease, but is also looking beyond RNAi to investigate the roles of various small, non-coding RNAs such as microRNAs and piwi-interacting RNAs.

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Ambros, meanwhile, is perhaps best known for his research into miRNAs, their role in animal development, and their potential use as cancer biomarkers. And Moore studies various aspects of non-RNAi-related post-transcriptional gene regulation in eukaryotes related to messenger and ribosomal RNAs.

The executive group "wanted to define [the center's] mission around all therapeutics related to RNA biology," Flotte said.

'Detailed Design Phase'

With a decision on the leadership of the RNA Therapeutics Institute made, UMMS is now busy overseeing construction of the 300,000 square-foot Albert Sherman Center, which will house the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster.

Flotte said that the Architectural Resources Cambridge has been hired to design the center, and that "we are now into the detailed design phase for the building." The official groundbreaking ceremony is slated for the fall.

Thus far, UMMS remains on track to meet its previous estimates of substantially completing the building by December 2011, with occupancy in the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster beginning in the first quarter of 2012.

In terms of hiring investigators for RNA Therapeutics Institute, Mello and other members of the executive group have been "empowered to move forward, [and] I think the serious work of it will begin in the fall since people are [currently] on summer schedules," Flotte said.

Still, he cautioned that UMMS isn't likely to begin hiring in earnest until after the center has opened.

"One of the reasons we're building [the Albert Sherman Center] is because we have a limited amount of laboratory space available," he explained. "We could recruit a few [people to join the RNA Therapeutics Institute], but the majority of the faculty will need to arrive in 2012 and beyond."

Flotte estimated the total cost for constructing the Albert Sherman Center will be roughly $250 million, exclusive of costs related to a parking facility and other ancillaries.

To date, UMMS has been funding the design and construction effort itself, not yet having received any of the $90 million in funding promised by the state. And while UMMS continues to expect that it will receive the money, there has been no date yet provided for when it will be disbursed.

"We still have a reasonable amount of working capital and continue to progress with the architects, their engineers, and so forth in doing the planning at this stage," Flotte said. "So it's not a rate-limiting factor at this point, but we don't have a date certain on receiving" the state funds.

Still, "we continue to get assurances from them that everything is fine," he said. Meanwhile, the school has applied for a variety of facility-construction grants from the National Institutes of Health, including one for $15 million that would be used to support the building of the Advanced Therapeutics Cluster, he added.

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