Vanderbilt basic scientists receive National Science Foundation grant to explore extracellular vesicle RNA behavior

Manuel Ascano, associate professor of biochemistry and pathology, microbiology and immunology, and Dr. Alissa Weaver, Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair and director of the Vanderbilt Center for Extracellular Vesicle Research, are one of nine U.S. research teams awarded funding from the National Science Foundation to more fully understand the potential biotechnological uses of RNA, ranging from crop disease protection to treatments that combat cancer. The research is expected to provide opportunities to partner with industry to translate knowledge gained in the lab into marketable new biotechnologies.

RNA is a complex organic molecule that performs essential tasks within the biological and chemical machinery of all living cells. Although RNA was first identified nearly a century ago, many of its functional aspects are not fully understood or predictable, according to a NSF release.

“Extracellular vesicles are natural delivery vehicles that transmit RNA between cells; however, it is unclear how RNA interactions with RNA-binding proteins in the EVs and the recipient cells impact its function,” Weaver said. Weaver is also professor of cell and developmental biology.

Ascano and Weaver’s project, “Characterization of the Biogenesis, Uptake, and Cellular Response to the Ribonucleoprotein Cargoes of Extracellular Vesicles using EV-CLASP,” will provide specific insight into how cells naturally communicate via the exchange of RNA in EVs, Weaver said.

“This work could enhance biotechnological applications across multiple fields by leveraging the natural capabilities of EVs. In studying the biogenesis and uptake of EVs, we can potentially gain a better understanding of how to transport RNA-interfering payloads to promote gene silencing for a variety of uses, including agriculture (crops and livestock) and medical therapies,” Ascano said. “There are already FDA-approved, RNA-based gene silencing therapies, and it is conceivable that work like ours could help improve packaging and/or delivery of these existing and future therapies.”

The types of technologies Weaver and Ascano may develop with this funding could help improve or increase the sensitivity of diagnostic or monitoring efforts, such as monitoring EVs to assess the extent of environmental contaminants.

The funding is provided through the NSF’s Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program, a joint effort of NSF in partnership with the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute.

“Innovative new modes of inquiry into the molecular-level structure, dynamics, and function of RNA is expected to lead to significant biotech breakthroughs at the intersection of chemistry and biology,” NSF’s chemistry division director David Berkowitz said. “By advancing this fundamental science, we open the door to new avenues of use-inspired research and applications that can benefit society and improve our quality of life.”

The grant proposal was supported by Vanderbilt’s Research Development and Support, within the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Innovation, which offers proposal development assistance for private (foundations) and federally funded opportunities. Services include searches for new sponsors, coordination and team building for proposals of any size, content development, and draft review. RDS further supports faculty by building relationships with external sponsors, hosting workshops, and providing guides and language for common proposal requirements.

A collage of images showing agriculture, human lungs and other images suggesting biotech research

Supported by the Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program, researchers will explore RNA’s roles and actions with the goal of using them to create new RNA-based methods for treating cancerous cells, making agricultural crops more resistant to blight and disease, fighting viral infections like the common cold, and more. The program is a joint effort of the U.S. National Science Foundation in partnership with the National Institutes of Health’s National Human Genome Research Institute. (U.S. National Science Foundation)

SourceVanderbilt University

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