Hooray for RNA

Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,

Long ago, when my then-boyfriend defended his thesis, his mother and sister kindly ordered a large cake, inscribed in red frosting with ‘Hooray, Hooray for DNA!’. The cheerful rhyme might rather have hoorayed ‘RNA’ as we both worked in the lab of Robert Roeder, an acclaimed RNA (transcription) pioneer. That was a fun thesis celebration, but the celebration of RNA has never been greater than it is right now!

RNA is a polymer of units called nucleotides, that was discovered (along with its close relative, DNA) in 1868 by the Swiss researcher Friedrich Miescher, who was looking for something completely different. Over the next 100 years, millions of hours of research time, and several Nobel prizes, it became clear that among many activities, RNA carries the code that directs production of proteins. Proteins carry out almost every function of Life, including building SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19.

This week I had my first COVID-19 RNA vaccine shot - Pfizer, at a CVS in Belmont. The nurse was top notch and the store employees serious about running an efficient, careful process. The nurse noted that everyone was excited to get their shot (me, too). I was pleased that my arm hurt after, suggesting that my body is responding to viral Spike protein made because of RNA in the vaccine, and starting to produce protective anti-viral antibodies. Back in my thesis days, it would have been hard to imagine hundreds of millions of people being injected with vaccines made of bits of RNA packed in fat droplets. When I was a PhD student, describing the medical applications of RNA in a grant proposal was wishful thinking.

Translating fundamental discoveries about RNA into useful applications has taken decades, but the idea of using RNA to prepare vaccines is reality, documented in this excellent review. It has not been trivial to get here – for one thing, RNA in COVID-19 vaccines is not the basic polymer, which is reactive and would be degraded within seconds after injection. It is modified RNA, that is more stable and so able to synthesize lots of Spike protein, modifications that had to be understood or invented. Methods to introduce RNA into people had to be developed, drawing on fundamental knowledge of the membrane that encases a cell, and on the chemistry of lipids that make up the membrane. High-tech, high throughout manufacturing processes with highest safety standards had to be devised, to produce millions of vaccine doses. It’s a long way from the discovery of ‘nuclein’, the original name for RNA.

SARS-CoV-2 RNA is what our world-class Northeastern testing protocol monitors, now extended to K-12 students, through more outstanding work from Jared Auclair, Associate Dean and Director of Northeastern’s Life Sciences Testing Center. Multiple biotech companies are targeting other aspects of RNA; for example, in the severe disorder, spinal muscular atrophy, RNA technology is providing a hopeful treatment to affected children.

The attributes of RNA used in vaccines, biotech and medicine stem from Fundamental Research, that is about exploration and discovery. Fundamental Research remains extremely important and fascinating, and we are nowhere near done understanding the workings of Life or any other aspect of the universe. What has changed since my graduate training is the closeness now of some fundamental discoveries in Life Sciences to medical relevance. In the College of Science, it is our commitment to society that investigators in every area of inquiry are considering and acting upon possible translational implications of your research. Many of you are doing this already, or your research is translational by design. For others, the connections may be harder to make. We have some ideas how to help catalyze consideration of ‘translational directions’, and would like to hear yours. Please send a note to me or Associate Dean for Research, Erin Cram.

THANK YOU for your outstanding research efforts - for the many grant applications ($133M to date), the hours of reading, considering and doing, and the intensive training you are giving the next generation of researchers. Together, we are addressing crucial challenges in Science, promoting excellence in the College of Science and at Northeastern University.

Finally, if you are celebrating Easter this weekend, warm wishes for a peaceful and joyous observance.

Best regards,

dean signature

Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science
Northeastern University