Centre to unleash RNA's potential

One of Prof Tenen's projects explores how RNA can be used to release the repression of tumour suppression genes

Research at the newly established RNA Biology Centre, hosted within the Cancer Science Institute of Singapore (CSI Singapore) at NUS, has the potential to uncover novel methods of treating cancer. The Centre aims to advance scientific understanding of ribonucleic acid's (RNA) part in biological processes, which in the past has focused on its messenger function of passing on genetic information.

The six-month-old Centre, funded by a $25-million grant from Singapore's Ministry of Education, brings together 14 Principal Investigators from different fields to look at fundamental aspects of RNA regulation. The scientists intend to develop novel RNA-based biomarkers and therapies that will make a difference to translational and clinical research.

RNA is one of three major biological macromolecules in addition to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins that are essential for all forms of life.  Recently, the field of RNA biology has been recognised for its importance in basic biological processes. RNA, in one form of another, touches nearly everything in a cell including the regulation of gene activity during development and cellular differentiation.

Although non-coding RNAs (ncRNA) were known to exist for more than a few decades, in recent years the focus of researching ncRNA has changed. Instead of researching the classical types of RNA there is huge interest in studying the more unique types of ncRNAs this includes long non-coding RNAs, competing endogenous RNA and circular RNA. Part of the excitement is that this area of research is new, it also has a lot of power, explained CSI Singapore Director Professor Daniel Tenen, who heads the new centre. He explained that it has great potential to lead to the development of new therapeutics and diagnosis methods, since RNA has been shown to induce or inhibit cancer in different biological models.

The Centre's team of internationally recognised researchers with cross-disciplinary expertise will conduct interrelated studies of non-classical RNAs, RNA editing/modification, RNA splicing, RNA in disease, and crosstalk between RNA classes and processes.

In furthering their understanding of RNA, the investigators will focus on blood development and leukaemia. This is because obtaining samples of blood to study leukaemia or RNA regulation is less intrusive as it does not require a biopsy. Leukaemia is also a well-researched cancer, so scientists have established sophisticated methods of studying the disease. Moreover, CSI is hosting a leukaemia bank managed by Professor Chng Wee Joo from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine that stores samples not only from Singapore, but also from the rest of Southeast Asia. This gives CSI access to a vast number of samples, and contributes to the uniqueness of the institute.

While many of the Centre's investigators are from NUS, it is seeking collaborators from all over Singapore. In a recent seed-funding call for proposals, the Centre received 23 applications including many from other Singapore universities and research institutes.

Among the Centre's projects are those exploring topics such as how RNA can be used to release the repression of the tumour suppressor genes, to interrupt the growth of cancer cells. Another project the scientists are working on is to generate all the different RNA groups from a single sample or patient.

See media coverage.