Yesterday, the RNA Institute at New York’s State University at Albany opened its doors to reveal a space that has been four years in the making: a newly expanded facility totaling 25,000 square feet, equipped with millions of dollars of laboratory equipment and constructed with a novel goal in mind – to foster collaboration on RNA research among researchers across the nation.

Under the direction of Dr. Paul Agris, the RNA Institute has flourished. Since Agris came on board full-time in 2010, the Institute has grown from being the product of a $5.4 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) grant with a handful of individual researchers, to being the recipient of $32 million in federal and state funding with nearly 60 laboratories nationwide and almost 400 researchers.

A collaborative vision

Agris, who specializes in RNA chemistry and structure, biomedicine and infectious diseases, envisioned the Institute as a space where research could be shared as a community.

“The Institute was based on the fundamental mission of creating a large community of people involved in research, science, technology development, drug discovery and diagnostics development with RNA-based materials,” Agris said. “This mission and vision is quite novel. The Institute is the only one of its kind with this in mind.”

In line with the collaborative mindset, Agris planned for a physical laboratory space that followed that ideology.

“The Institute is developed on the basis of having all researchers work together…When you walk in the door, immediately on the right is the computational center. The idea is to have people with research problems walk in there first, and talk to people about what their research problem is,” Agris says. “From there, you walk down the hall and there is a huge, open laboratory with millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and very experienced individuals who can help with experiments.”

Dr. Paul Agris, director, The RNA Institute at the University at Albany. (Source: University at Albany)

The expanded space includes a mixture of laboratory and office spacing, and is equipped with specialized, expensive instruments that usually could not be afforded or used effectively by a single lab.

“We were looking for instruments that could be altered or adapted for work with RNA, but hadn’t previously been,” says Agris. “That way, we could forge a new area or space of chemistry instrumentation and physical studies that have not been achieved with RNA or achieved at the sensitivity level – that’s what we would like to strive for. [For example], we purchased everything you could imagine in spectroscopy, through to calorimetry at the nano-level, to mass spectrometry.”

Aside from the individual researchers and laboratories, the RNA Institute also holds five public-private partnerships, none of which are contracted. Accordingly, the newly expanded facility includes 1,000 square feet of laboratory space reserved for working on those partnerships, as well as the vast number of researchers who are not in the Albany area, but who would like to visit the Institute for up to three months to complete collaborative research.
“A number of people may feel from their experience that research labs at academic universities establish core facilities in which people within the university, or from outside, would come and pay a fee to use an instrument and then leave after paying the fee. That’s not the model that we’re using,” says Agris. “Our model is one in which we foster collaborations nationwide, as well as locally, and people can visit to facilitate those collaborations when necessary. But the collaborations have, as a platform, the capabilities of the Institute and those capabilities are intellectual capital as well as instrumentation.”

RNA Institute Senior Research Scientist, Maria Bansanta Sanchez, works on identifying and characterizing RNA modifications using mass spectrometry. (source: University at Albany)

Vendor partnerships

The Institute’s boasting of intellectual capital and instrumentation is not underrated. Agris’ acquired public-private partnerships range from Thermo Fisher Scientific to Albany Molecular Research Inc. (AMRI) to Sigma-Aldrich.

“In dealing with these multi-billion dollar companies, what we’re doing looks like very small potatoes, but after working with them for a year or more, they recognize that they really aren’t in the RNA space or they would like to have their pieces of equipment, methods or chemistries more aligned with the RNA space,” Agris says.

Sigma-Aldrich, for example, provided the Institute with one of its most exciting features, the analogous mouse library and the complete human silencing-RNA library.

“The silencing-RNAs are capable of shutting down any of the human genes. The library is extremely large, there are 25,000 human genes, and there are anywhere between six and 10 silencing-RNAs per gene. That’s more than 100,000 individual RNAs we’ll have in our library that can be used to shut down any human gene,” says Agris. “That’s a very exciting pool of devices. One can go to the freezer, pull out the silencing-RNA for your human gene, and silence that gene in tissue culture, and then eventually in an animal model, and study the effect of this silencing.”

“There are many RNAs that are controlling human genes and these [controlling] RNAs are disproportionately appearing in certain human diseases. We need to be able to effectively turn off the controlling agent with various approaches.”

Looking ahead

The expansion, and its many perks, means headway in Agris’ personal laboratory research – which currently has four ongoing projects in breast cancer, neurobiology and neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as well as a technology-based project involving drug discovery and diagnostics.

In this research, the Agris lab has been able to closely work on aggregating proteins in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, examine the structural biology of HIV and look for drug targets against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

“There was no way we could create an institute that would be a national RNA research resource without having the kind of space [that we will have now],” says Agris. “This creates a platform for the community to best launch their ideas, their projects and their pilot programs. It gives them the intellectual capital of the Institute and the physical ability to do just about anything they would like to do. And if it hasn’t been done before, all the better, because it allows us to push the edges back on what can be done with RNA.”

“There are some 3,000 neglected and rare diseases, and yet common to all these diseases, and also common to all cancers and all neurobiological diseases, is the fact that RNA is central to all the biology. It’s our hope within the rare and neglected diseases, we will find a connection between those that were thought to be extremely different from each other and show that through RNA…we’ll be able to approach these diseases in a way that has not been done before.”