Until recently, almost all genetics research has focused on about two percent of the human genome, the portion responsible for directly creating proteins. Now, a Yale researcher will direct a new center studying how the remaining 98 percent can be leveraged to develop new cancer treatments.

On July 1, Frank Slack, a professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, became director of the Institute for RNA Medicine (iRM) at The Cancer Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Slack and his students will move from Yale to iRM, which will aim to create new medications and diagnostic tools by studying non-coding RNA.

“If you can have people with many different areas of expertise in the same proximity, people have joint meetings, write for joint grants, and just sort of generally push the science forward in a more expedited way,” Slack said.

The new lab will start with three principle investigators, and Slack said he hopes to hire about one more researcher per year over the next decade, in addition to raising funds and establishing ties with the pharmaceutical industry. Though Slack has left Yale and is now a professor at Harvard Medical School, he said research partnerships with colleagues at Yale will continue.

RNA was long thought of as a biological intermediate: DNA codes for RNA, and RNA carries that code to make proteins in the body. Research has shown only a small portion of the genome serves this process, with a significant portion coding for RNA that does not eventually lead to protein formation. Recent study has revealed diverse functions for such non-coding RNA, such as guiding proteins, regulating their expression, and otherwise shaping biological function.

Since most pharmacological agents work by targeting proteins, Slack said these functional RNA could represent a new frontier both for cancer research and other biomedical fields.

“With some luck, if the trends continue, this sort of research looks like it will be leading to new therapeutics and diagnostics,” Slack said.

Slack joined the Yale faculty in 2000.