Wednesday, May 20, 2009

New cost-effective method for finding the 'on/off' switch for genes

Here's a pretty geeky new-n'-hot with major implications for the economics of the pharmaceutical industry and turnaround time for drug development. UCSF scientists have unveiled a method for identifying large quantities of short hairpin RNA, or shRNA, at a very fast rate. shRNA are basically the on-off switches for genes; they have many potential uses in manipulating genes involved in disease causation. Up to this point finding shRNAs has been a time and resource-intensive process. The new system uses microarrays to synthesize large numbers of shRNA strands, which allows even small laboratories to do significant genetic screenings. So far the researchers have created a library of 22,000 shRNA segments, with plans to create an shRNA library spanning the entirely human genome.

Facilitating the identification of shRNAs that affect the functioning of genes necessary for disease causation has potential to save a large amount of time and money in the crafting of interventions for particularly difficult diseases like HIV and Alzheimer's. This technology could open the floodgates for many smaller labs to move away from fruit flies and delve into mammalian-based research on treatments; previously, the study of individual genes in mammals would cost $100,000-plus to run.

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-Andrew Plan

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