Finding new ways to synthesise RNA in large volumes

Times Higher Education (THE) has published a feature story- Researchers target choke point in RNA revolution- about a new “dream team” assembled to tackle RNA supply issues, led by Monash BDI’s Associate Professor Traude Beilharz.

The interdisciplinary team will find new ways of synthesising ribonucleic acid, or RNA, in large volumes, the story says. It includes scientists working in bioinformatics, chemistry, structural biology and X-ray crystallography.

The research aims to meet worldwide demand for RNA as a raw material, the THE story says. RNA was considered of little medical value until University of Pennsylvania biochemist Katalin Karikó discovered how to circumvent the human immune system’s rejection of injected RNA, work that led to Moderna and BioNTech – companies that had supported her laboratory – developing COVID-19 vaccinations in record time, it says.

Vaccines are being developed against a number of other diseases and RNA therapeutics are being used to prevent or treat forms of muscular dystrophy and lower cholesterol.

The story, by John Ross, quotes Associate Professor Beilharz, Monash head of RNA research, as warning that the world had been “wrong-footed by the unexpected success of RNA vaccines and lacked the capacity to manufacture RNA on an industrial scale.”

Test tube techniques for producing laboratory quantities had not changed in three decades, she says. “To make enough to inject a person, let alone a whole population, it’s incredibly inefficient. That fundamental part needs to catch up,” Associate Professor Beilharz is quoted as saying.

Her group plans to use computational mining to identify new RNA-producing enzymes, and synthetic biology to harness them as microscopic biological factories. “We’ve assembled people who don’t normally work together to ask . . . how can we underpin this booming need the world will have for new enzymes and modified nucleotides,” she says.

Associate Professor Beilharz cautions in the article that a funding blind spot - due to constraints in existing competitive funding mechanisms - could hamper this essential research.

Monash is home to Australia's largest network of RNA and mRNA researchers. Keep up to date with our work on life-saving vaccines and therapeutic treatments on our Monash RNA webpage.

About the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University

Committed to making the discoveries that will relieve the future burden of disease, the newly established Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute at Monash University brings together more than 120 internationally-renowned research teams. Our researchers are supported by world-class technology and infrastructure, and partner with industry, clinicians and researchers internationally to enhance lives through discovery.

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