Center for RNA Biology and Therapeutics

The Center for RNA Biology and Therapeutics at City of Hope is a hub for multidisciplinary collaboration among scientists and physicians seeking better solutions for cancer and diabetes. It is the first, and so far only, center focusing on RNA research on the West Coast.

Under the leadership of founding director John Rossi, Ph.D., Lidow Family Research Chair and professor and chair of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and deputy director Jianjun Chen, Ph.D., Simms/Mann Family Foundation Chair and professor and chair of the Department of Systems Biology, the center’s focus is taking new ideas for fighting disease and translating them into treatments that benefit patients.

What You Need to Know About RNA

Molecules RNA - Center for RNA Biology and Therapeutics

Most people are aware of DNA and its importance as the genetic material that contains the unique blueprints for making you who you are. However, the only way for the body to go from those blueprints to all of the varied processes that keep your body functioning requires another type of genetic material: RNA.

A subtype called messenger RNA (or mRNA for short) translates DNA blueprints into functional instructions that your cells can use to make the myriad proteins that constitute your body, keep it functioning and regulate its activities.

This multistep process, which is fundamental to human biology, also involves transfer RNA (tRNA), which decodes mRNA, and ribosomal RNA (rRNA), which forms the tiny factories inside cells that actually make proteins. This process is happening constantly, virtually everywhere inside your body. On the one hand, mistakes in the process can result in diseases, such as cancer.

On the other hand, RNA can also be harnessed for human benefit by science: One well-known medical application for mRNA is to carry the instructions that are the basis of the highly successful COVID-19 vaccines.

RNA has other important roles in your biology that are still not well understood. In fact, RNA sequences that do not encode proteins are far more abundant than mRNA, tRNA and rRNA combined.

There are many mysteries to be solved about these noncoding RNAs (ncRNAs). Some of them, called interfering RNAs, actually suppress the expression of certain genes. The purpose of others is yet to be found. However, emerging evidence suggests that ncRNA has a far more complex and prevalent role in essential biological processes than previously believed.

Spirals RNA - Center for RNA Biology and Therapeutics

The Power and Potential of RNA Research

Research into RNA at City of Hope holds great promise for addressing human health exactly because of its centrality to the processes of life in humans — as well as in other animals, plants, fungi and certain bacteria. Many viruses, including the ones that cause the cold, influenza, AIDS and COVID-19, use RNA as their genetic material. And because modifications to RNA aren’t permanent, there’s also a chance that therapies based in RNA or targeting RNA will have fewer and milder side effects.

More than that, there are numerous unanswered questions about RNA. Scientists have identified more than 170 ways that RNA (including mRNA, tRNA, rRNA and ncRNA) is modified after it is created; while it’s known that some of these modifications aberrantly occur in cancer, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, most of the modifications remain to be studied. And researchers are still in the early days of understanding the function of long noncoding RNA.

However, applications for RNA research are not necessarily far off. RNA and its modification signatures may serve as biomarkers for the early detection of disease and for the prediction of drug response and clinical outcomes; RNA and its modification machinery can be used as tools or targets for disease therapeutics. In fact, RNA-based therapy for liver cancer is currently being evaluated in patients at City of Hope. The same approach may also have relevance for cancers of the breast, lung and brain.

As our investigators uncover more about RNA, the knowledge they create is likely to have numerous applications for human health and fighting life-threatening disease.

Learn about our labs and projects