Targeted delivery of therapeutic RNAs directly to cancer cells

Tel Aviv University‘s groundbreaking technology may revolutionize the treatment of cancer and a wide range of diseases and medical conditions. In the framework of this study, the researchers were able to create a new method of transporting RNA-based drugs to a subpopulation of immune cells involved in the inflammation process, and target the disease-inflamed cell without causing damage to other cells.

The study was led by Prof. Dan Peer, a global pioneer in the development of RNA-based therapeutic delivery. He is Tel Aviv University‘s Vice President for Research and Development, head of the Center for Translational Medicine and a member of both the Shmunis School of Biomedicine and Cancer Research, George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, and the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology. The study was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Our development actually changes the world of therapeutic antibodies. Today we flood the body with antibodies that, although selective, damage all the  that express a specific receptor, regardless of their current form. We have now taken out of the equation  that can help us, that is, uninflamed cells, and via a simple injection into the bloodstream can silence, express or edit a particular gene exclusively in the cells that are inflamed at that given moment,” explains Prof. Peer.

As part of the study, Prof. Peer and his team were able to demonstrate this groundbreaking development in animal models of inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s disease and colitis, and improve all inflammatory symptoms, without performing any manipulation on about 85% of the immune system cells. Behind the innovative development stands a simple concept, targeting to a specific receptor conformation. “On every cell envelope in the body, that is, on the , there are receptors that select which substances enter the cell,” explains Prof. Peer. “If we want to inject a drug, we have to adapt it to the specific receptors on the , otherwise it will circulate in the bloodstream and do nothing. But some of these receptors are dynamic—they change shape on the membrane according to external or internal signals. We are the first in the world to succeed in creating a drug delivery system that knows how to bind to receptors only in a certain situation, and to skip over the other identical cells, that is, to deliver the drug exclusively to cells that are currently relevant to the disease.”


RNA Could Be The Future of Cancer Treatment

Cells are the basic building blocks of all living things. So, in order to treat or cure almost any disease or condition – including cancer – you first need to have a fundamental understanding of cell biology. While researchers have a pretty good understanding of what each component of a cell does, there are still things we don’t know about them – including the role that some RNAs molecules play in a cell.

Finding the answer to this may be key in developing further cancer treatments, which is what our research has sought to uncover. Three types of molecules carry information in a cell, and each of these molecules performs its own important function. The first is DNA, which contains hard-wired genetic information (like a book of instructions). . The second, RNA, is a temporary copy of one particular instruction that is derived from DNA. Last are the proteins produced thanks to the information provided by the RNA. These proteins are the “workhorses” of the cells, which perform specific functions, such as helping cells move, reproduce, and generate energy.

In line with this model, RNA has long been seen as nothing more than an intermediary between DNA and proteins. But researchers are starting to discover that RNA is much more than an intermediary. In fact, this overlooked molecule may hold the secret to cancer progression. The scientists group recently discovered a new type of RNA that drives cancer progression without producing any protein. We think that this type of discovery may pave the way for an entirely new way of targeting cancer cells. But to understand how this is possible, it’s first important to know the different types of RNA we have in our body. Only about 1% of DNA is copied into RNAs that make proteins. Other RNAs help the production of proteins. The rest (known as non-coding RNAs) were long assumed to serve no function in the human body. But recent studies are challenging these assumptions, showing these “uselessRNAs actually performvery specific purpose. In fact, these “non-coding” RNAs regulate the functions of many genes, thereby controlling key aspects of the cells’ lives (such as their ability to move around).

The most abundant type of non-coding RNAs are long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs). These are long molecules which interact with many different molecules in the cell. And, as researchers have now discovered, these complex structures allow many different functions to take place between cells.

For example, some lncRNAsgrab” different proteins and gather them to work in a specific cellular space – such as the same gene segment. This function is essential for controlling the inactivation of some genes during development.


Reversible Gene Editing

The gene-editing system, CRISPR-Cas9, is truly revolutionizing medicine: in the future, it may help us eradicate ailments from sickle cell, cancer, and even blindness. While this system allows scientists to make changes to DNA, the changes are permanent. On the one hand, this is useful, because it could potentially cure genetic diseases without requiring a lifetime of treatment. The downside is that unintended consequences of the edits are difficult to fix — especially “off-targetedits, where CRISPR changes the wrong stretch of DNA. This is a huge concern for the scientific community — no one wants to be responsible for genetic mutations that go awry.

But what if the changes were not permanent? What if we could simply turn CRISPR off whenever we wanted?  A team of researchers at MIT and UCSF has developed a new gene-editing system that they call “CRISPRoff.” According to the researchers, this system can change how specific genes behave, much like CRISPR, while leaving the DNA strand unaltered — and even better, these modifications are completely reversible.

The traditional CRISPR system invented in 2012 relies on a protein called Cas9, which is found in bacterial immune systems. Cas9 can target specific genes and cut the DNA strand, removing or replacing defective genes. The DNA then self-repairs and continues functioning after the gene has been removed. Because this system alters the DNA sequence, the changes are permanent, and even though CRISPR is one of the most accurate ways to change DNA, it can be difficult to ensure that the modification will always be limited to that one gene.

As beautiful as CRISPR-Cas9 is, it hands off the repair to natural cellular processes, which are complex and multifaceted,MIT‘s Jonathan Weissman and coauthor of the study, said in a press release. “It’s very hard to control the outcomes.”

CRISPRoff is a new kind of gene-editing technology that doesn’t modify the DNA sequence, but instead changes the way those sequences are read. With this system, scientists can silence or activate various genes by adding chemical tags onto the DNA strand, without making any permanent changes. The tags cause the DNA to become unreadable by the cell’s messenger RNA, the molecule responsible for carrying instructions from the DNA to make proteins.


Summer Sunlight Could Inactivate 90% of Coronavirus Particles in 30 minutes

A team of scientists is calling for greater research into how sunlight inactivates SARS-CoV-2 after realizing there’s a glaring discrepancy between the most recent theory and experimental results. UC Santa Barbara mechanical engineer Paolo Luzzatto-Fegiz and colleagues noticed the virus was inactivated as much as eight times faster in experiments than the most recent theoretical model predicted.

The theory assumes that inactivation works by having UVB hit the RNA of the virus, damaging it,” explained Luzzatto-Fegiz.

But the discrepancy suggests there’s something more going on than that, and figuring out what this is may be helpful for managing the virus.

UV light, or the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, is easily absorbed by certain nucleic acid bases in DNA and RNA, which can cause them to bond in ways that are hard to fix.

But not all UV light is the sameLonger UV waves, called UVA, don’t have quite enough energy to cause problems. It’s the mid-range UVB waves in sunlight that are primarily responsible for killing microbes and putting our own cells at risk of Sun damage.

Short-wave UVC radiation has been shown to be effective against viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, even while it’s still safely enveloped in human fluids.

But this type of UV doesn’t usually come into contact with Earth’s surface, thanks to the ozone layer.

UVC is great for hospitals,” said co-author and Oregon State University toxicologist Julie McMurry. “But in other environments – for instance, kitchens or subways – UVC would interact with the particulates to produce harmful ozone.”

In July 2020, an experimental study tested the effects of UV light on SARS-CoV-2 in simulated saliva. They recorded the virus was inactivated when exposed to simulated sunlight for between 10-20 minutes.

Natural sunlight may be effective as a disinfectant for contaminated nonporous materials,” Wood and colleagues concluded in the paper.

Luzzatto-Feigiz and team compared those results with a theory about how sunlight achieved this, which was published just a month later, and saw the math didn’t add up. his study found the SARS-CoV-2 virus was three times more sensitive to the UV in sunlight than influenza A, with 90 percent of the coronavirus‘s particles being inactivated after just half an hour of exposure to midday sunlight in summer.

By comparison, in winter light infectious particles could remain intact for days.


New Variant of SARS-CoV-2 Spreading Fast

A coronavirus variant called B1525 has become one of the most recent additions to the global variant watch list and has been included in the list of variants under investigation by Public Health England.

Scientists are keeping a watchful eye on this variant because it has several mutations in the gene that makes the spike protein – the part of the virus that latches onto human cells. These changes include the presence of the increasingly well-known mutation called E484K, which allows the virus to partly evade the immune system, and is found in the variants first identified in South Africa (B1351) and Brazil (P1).

While there is no information on what this means for B1525, there is growing evidence that E484K may impact how effective COVID vaccines are. But there is no suggestion so far that B1525 is more transmissible or that it leads to more severe disease.

There are other mutations in B1525 that are also noteworthy, such as Q677H. Scientists have repeatedly detected this changeat least six times in different lineages in the US, suggesting that it gives the virus an advantage, although the nature of any benefit has not been identified yet.

The B1525 variant also has several deletions – where “letters” (G, U, A and C) of the virus’s RNA are missing from its genome. These letters are also missing in B117, the variant first detected in Kent, England. Research by Ravindra Gupta, a clinical microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, found that these deletions may increase infectivity twofold in laboratory experiments.

As with many variants, B1525 appears to have emerged quite recently. The earliest example in the shared global database of coronavirus genomes, called Gisaid, dates from 15 December 2020. It was identified in a person in the UK. And like many variants, B1525 had already travelled the world before it came to global attention. A total of 204 sequences of this variant in Gisaid can be traced to 18 countries as of 20 February 2021.


Katalin Kariko, RNA Hero, Future Nobel Prize

The development of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, the first approved jab in the West, is the crowning achievement of decades of work for Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko, who fled to the US from communist rule in the 1980s.

When trials found the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to be safe and 95 percent effective in November, it was the crowning achievement of Katalin Kariko’s 40 years of research on the genetic code RNA (ribonucleic acid). Her first reaction was a sense of “redemption,” Kariko told The Daily Telegraph.

I was grabbing the air, I got so excited I was afraid that I might die or something,” she said from her home in Philadelphia. “When I am knocked down I know how to pick myself up, but I always enjoyed working… I imagined all of the diseases I could treat.”

Born in January 1955 in a Christian family in the town of Szolnok in central Hungary – a year before the doomed heroism of the uprising against the Soviet-backed communist regimeKariko grew up in nearby Kisujszellas on the Great Hungarian Plain, where her father was a butcher. Fascinated by science from a young age, Kariko began her career at the age of 23 at the University of Szeged’s Biological Research Centre, where she obtained her PhD.

It was there that she first developed her interest in RNA. But communist Hungary’s laboratories lacked resources, and in 1985 the university sacked her. Consequently, Kariko looked for work abroad, getting a job at Temple University in Philadelphia the same year. Hungarians were forbidden from taking money out of the country, so she sold the family car and hid the proceeds in her 2-year-old daughter’s teddy bear. “It was a one-way ticket,” she told Business Insider. “We didn’t know anybody.”

Not everything went as planned after Kariko’s escape from communism. At the end of the 1980s, the scientific community was focused on DNA, which was seen as the key to understanding how to develop treatments for diseases such as cancer. But Kariko’s main interest was RNA, the genetic code that gives cells instructions on how to make proteins.

At the time, research into RNA attracted criticism because the body’s immune system sees it as an intruder, meaning that it often provokes strong inflammatory reactions. In 1995, Kariko was about to be made a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but instead she was consigned to the rank of researcher.

Usually, at that point, people just say goodbye and leave because it’s so horrible,” Kariko told medical publication Stat. She went through a cancer scare at the time, while her husband was stuck in Hungary trying to sort out visa issues. “I tried to imagine: Everything is here, and I just have to do better experiments,” she continued. Kariko was also on the receiving end of sexism, with colleagues asking her the name of her supervisor when she was running her own lab.

Kariko persisted in the face of these difficulties. “From outside, it seemed crazy, struggling, but I was happy in the lab,” she told Business Insider. “My husband always, even today, says, ‘This is entertainment for you.’ I don’t say that I go to work. It is like play.” Thanks to Kariko’s position at the University of Pennsylvania, she was able to send her daughter Susan Francia there for a quarter of the tuition costs. Francia won gold on the US rowing team in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

It was a serendipitous meeting in front of a photocopier in 1997 that turbocharged Kariko’s career. She met immunologist Drew Weissman, who was working on an HIV vaccine. They decided to collaborate to develop a way of allowing synthetic RNA to go unrecognised by the body’s immune system – an endeavour that succeeded to widespread acclaim in 2005. The duo continued their research and succeeded in placing RNA in lipid nanoparticles, a coating that prevents them from degrading too quickly and facilitates their entry into cells.

The researchers behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs used these techniques to develop their vaccines.


Coronavirus Vaccine: Moderna and Pfizer Final Test Results Imminent

Moderna should have enough data from its late-stage trial to know whether its coronavirus vaccine works in November, CEO Stephane Bancel said Thursday. The company could have enough data by October, but that’s unlikely, Bancel said during an interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.

If the infection rate in the country were to slow down in the next weeks, it could potentially be pushed out in a worst-case scenario in December,” he added.

Moderna is one of three drugmakers backed by the U.S. in late-stage testing for a potential vaccine. The other two are companies Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Moderna‘s experimental vaccine contains genetic material called messenger RNA, or mRNA, which scientists hope provokes the immune system to fight the virus. In July, the company released early-stage data that showed its potential vaccine generated a promising immune response in a small group of patients.

Bancel’s comment came four days after the CEO of Pfizer said its vaccine could be distributed to Americans before the end of the year. CEO Albert Bourla told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the company should have key data from its late-stage trial for the Food and Drug Administration by the end of October. If the FDA approves the vaccine, the company is prepared to distribute “hundreds of thousands of doses,” he said.


Why RNA Is A Better Measure Of A Patient’s Current Health Than DNA

By harnessing the combined power of NGS, machine learning and the dynamic nature of RNA we’re able to accurately measure the dynamic immune response and capture a more comprehensive picture of what’s happening at the site of the solid tumor. In the beginning, there was RNA – the first genetic molecule.

In the primordial soup of chemicals that represented the beginning of life, ribonucleic acid (RNA) had the early job of storing information, likely with the support of peptides. Today, RNA’s cousin – deoxyribonucleic acid – or DNA, has taken over most of the responsibilities of passing down genetic information from cell-to-cell, generation-to-generation. As a result, most early health technologies were developed to analyze DNA. But, RNA is a powerful force. And its role in storing information, while different from its early years, has no less of an impact on human health and is gaining more mindshare in our industry.

RNA is often considered a messenger molecule, taking the information coded in our DNA and transcribing it into cellular directives that result in downstream biological signals and proteinslevel changes.  And for this reason, RNA is becoming known not only as a drug target but perhaps more importantly, as a barometer of health.

3d illustration of a part of RNA chain from which the deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is composed

How and why is RNA so useful? First, RNA is labile — changing in both sequence and abundance in response to genetic and epigenetic changes, but also external factors such as disease, therapy, exercise, and more. This is in contrast to DNA, which is generally static, changing little after conception.

Next, RNA is a more accurate snapshot of disease progression. When mutations do occur at the DNA level, these do not always result in downstream biological changes. Often, the body is able to compensate by repairing the mutation or overcome it by using redundancies in the pathway in which the gene resides. By instead evaluating RNA, we get one step closer to understanding the real impact disease is imparting on our body.

Finally, RNA is abundant. In most human cells, while only two copies of DNA are present, hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules are present,representing more than 10,000 different species of RNA. Because even rare transcripts are present in multiple copies, biological signals can be confidently detected in RNA when the right technology is used.


3D Mapping of Coronavirus Genome

The novel coronavirus uses structures within its RNA to infect cells. Scientists have now identified these configurations, generating the most comprehensive atlas to date of SARS-CoV-2’s genome. Although contained in a long, noodle-like molecule, the new coronavirus’s genome looks nothing like wet spaghetti. Instead, it folds into stems, coils, and cloverleafs that evoke molecular origami.

A team led by RNA scientist Anna Marie Pyle has now made the most comprehensive map to date of these genomic structures. In two preprints posted in July 2020 to, Pyle’s team mapped structures across the entire RNA genome of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, using living cells and computational analyses.

SARS-CoV-2 relies on its unique RNA structures to infect people and cause the illness COVID-19. But these structures’ contribution to infection and disease is often underappreciated, even among scientists, says Pyle, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Yale University.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland

The general wisdom is that if we just focus on the proteins encoded in the virus’s genome, we’ll understand how SARS-CoV-2 works,” Pyle says. “But for these types of viruses, RNA structures in the genome can influence their ability to function as much as encoded proteins.”

Researchers can now begin to tease out just how these structures aid the virus—information that could ultimately lead to new treatments for COVID-19. Once scientists have identified RNA structures that carry out key tasks, for instance, it may be possible to devise ways to disrupt them—and interfere with infection.


Breakthrough Against COVID-19

A team of scientists from Stanford University is working with researchers at the Molecular Foundry, a nanoscience user facility located at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), to develop a gene-targeting, antiviral agent against COVID-19. Last year, Stanley Qi, an assistant professor in the departments of bioengineering, and chemical and systems biology at Stanford University and his team had begun working on a technique called PAC-MAN – or Prophylactic Antiviral CRISPR in human cells – that uses the gene-editing tool CRISPR to fight influenza.

But that all changed in January, when news of the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Qi and his team were suddenly confronted with a mysterious new virus for which no one had a clear solution.

Lipitoids, which self-assemble with DNA and RNA, can serve as cellular delivery systems for antiviral therapies that could prevent COVID-19 and other coronavirus infections.

So we thought, ‘Why don’t we try using our PAC-MAN technology to fight it?’” said Qi.

Since late March, Qi and his team have been collaborating with a group led by Michael Connolly, a principal scientific engineering associate in the Biological Nanostructures Facility at Berkeley Lab’s Molecular Foundry, to develop a system that delivers PAC-MAN into the cells of a patient.

Like all CRISPR systems, PAC-MAN is composed of an enzyme – in this case, the virus-killing enzyme Cas13 – and a strand of guide RNA, which commands Cas13 to destroy specific nucleotide sequences in the coronavirus’s genome. By scrambling the virus’s genetic code, PAC-MAN could neutralize the coronavirus and stop it from replicating inside cells.

Qi said that the key challenge to translating PAC-MAN from a molecular tool into an anti-COVID-19 therapy is finding an effective way to deliver it into lung cells. When SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, invades the lungs, the air sacs in an infected person can become inflamed and fill with fluid, hijacking a patient’s ability to breathe.

But my lab doesn’t work on delivery methods,” he said. So on March 14, they published a preprint of their paper, and even tweeted, in the hopes of catching the eye of a potential collaborator with expertise in cellular delivery techniques. Soon after, they learned of Connolly’s work on synthetic molecules called lipitoids at the Molecular Foundry. Lipitoids are a type of synthetic peptide mimic known as a “peptoid” first discovered 20 years ago by Connolly’s mentor Ron Zuckermann. In the decades since, Connolly and Zuckermann have worked to develop peptoid delivery molecules such as lipitoids. And in collaboration with Molecular Foundry users, they have demonstrated lipitoids’ effectiveness in the delivery of DNA and RNA to a wide variety of cell lines.

Today, researchers studying lipitoids for potential therapeutic applications have shown that these materials are nontoxic to the body and can deliver nucleotides by encapsulating them in tiny nanoparticles just one billionth of a meter wide – the size of a virus. Now Qi hopes to add his CRISPR-based COVID-19 therapy to the Molecular Foundry’s growing body of lipitoid delivery systems.