University joins biotech firms for genome venture

Just as Columbus’ map showed him the location of new lands but failed to show him what he would find there, scientists now have a map of the entire human genome, and they too must set out on a journey to determine the genes’ functions.

Yale is joining forces with other biomedical institutions in an meant to accelerate this process. The new initiative is being sponsored by Dharmacon, a Colorado-based private company that developed the first comprehensive library of siRNA, or short ribonucleic acid sequences that are copied but not translated into proteins. The library is a map for researchers — it shows the location of certain genes. Now scientists at Yale more than ten other institutions world wide will work to determine the function of each mapped gene and apply this knowledge to the treatment of disease.

“The point of the initiative is to get everyone together in a collaborating context to find a way to make it happen,” said Michael White, the initiative’s leader at the University of Texas.

The universities involved in the Genome-Wide RNAi Global Initiative have agreed to collaborate on research, but are still independent, said Dr. Kenneth Cowan, director of the member institution Eppley Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Rather than creating a single center for siRNA research, Dharmacon wanted to create a conduit for communication between established researchers, he said.

A more specific goal of the initiative, both at Yale and at other member institutions, is its application to cancer research, leading to increased knowledge and potential new drugs.

Researchers plan to screen techniques to examine individual genes and how they relate to different topics of cancer research. For instance, Cowan said, researchers can now determine which genes from the library play a role in cancer-cell death using gene knockouts, which is the technique of selectively turning certain genes to the “off” position.

Genetics, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Kevin White ’93 is the head of the initiative at Yale, where researchers are focusing on proliferation rates of breat-cancer cells. said, Yale researchers hope to eventually determine which genes regulate tumor growth, said Sujun Hua GRD ’08, a researcher in White’s lab.

In addition to helping identify the genetic basis for cancer, the library will also help researchers understand gene cooperation resulting in complex physical traits, Cowan said.

“This is a phenomenal technique for looking into how the genes interact with each other to create any characteristic,” he said.

But siRNA researchers said there is something greater to be gained from the genome initiative than research on a single disease. Scientists are excited about figuring out the function of each of the 22,000 human genes, said White.

“The [siRNA] library is a really nice handle to begin to do that,” he said.

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