Advances in gene silencing on the agenda

Recent advances in using 'RNA interference' (RNAi) to improve plant, animal and human health will be the major focus of the CSIRO-hosted Horizons in Livestock Sciences Conference on the Gold Coast from 12-15 September.

In line with the conference's theme: 'Gene silencing and therapeutic innovations', 26 Australian and international experts will present addresses highlighting RNAi's potential benefits.

CSIRO Livestock Industries' Chief, Shaun Coffey, says that while RNAi has been evolving in plants and animals over millions of years, scientists only discovered the process and its benefits in the 1990s.

"The major benefit of RNAi is that it allows gene-specific silencing - that is, researchers can 'switch off' targeted genes in animals and plants."

"All facets of RNAi will be explored during the conference, ranging from functional genomic studies and 'target validation', through to novel therapeutics and delivery strategies.

"The conference presents researchers from Australia and overseas with the opportunity to discuss recent breakthroughs in the RNAi field and determine what needs to be achieved in the longer-term," Mr Coffey says.

Conference chairman, CSIRO Livestock Industries' Dr Tim Doran says that RNAi can help researchers to find out what specific genes do, produce new pharmaceuticals and develop disease-resistant plants and animals.

Dr Doran says that by using RNAi to knock out genes across a genome, researchers are able to identify or 'validate' new targets (proteins) for existing drugs.

"This approach has been used by CSIRO Livestock Industries' parasitologists in an effort to control internal and external parasites of cattle and sheep," he says.

Researchers at CSIRO Plant Industry are using RNAi to modify the oil composition in cotton seed and produce other novel traits.

A leading conference speaker, CSIRO Plant Industry's Dr Peter Waterhouse, was a member of the research team which, in 1995, first demonstrated gene silencing in plants by intentionally using double-stranded RNA.

Waterhouse and his colleague, Dr Chris Helliwell, will speak on the mechanisms and applications of RNAi in plant genomics.

International speakers include a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Cancer Research, Dr Carl Novina. Dr Novina is investigating the mechanisms and applications of short RNA function in mammals, including harnessing the potential of RNAi in treating and controlling virus infection and cancer in the laboratory of Nobel laureate, Dr Phillip Sharp. On October 1, Dr Novina will take up the position of Assistant Professor at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School.

Also speaking is the Chair of the Division of Molecular Biology at the Beckman Research Institute of the City of Hope, Los Angeles - and Dean of the Institute's Graduate School of Biological Sciences - Dr John Rossi. Dr Rossi is regarded as a world leader in the development of therapeutic applications of RNAi and in HIV/AIDS clinical research. He is a scientific advisor to Benitec Australia Ltd. Benitec's Director of Research, Dr Ken Reed, will also speak at the conference.

Researchers are also tapping the potential of important molecules in the gene silencing pathway - micro-RNAs (miRNAs) - which control gene expression during significant biological processes.

"miRNAs have been implicated in some cancers and are involved in viral disease," Dr Doran says.

CSIRO Livestock Industries' Dr Brian Dalrymple is working with the Professor of Molecular Biology and Director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland, Professor John Mattick, to identify and determine the function of non-coding RNAs, including miRNAs. Both Dr Dalrymple and Professor Mattick will speak at the conference. Professor Mattick will give the opening conference address entitled "The genomic programming of animal growth and development."

RNAi is a key component of CSIRO's biotechnology strategy, with the organisation holding an extensive and growing intellectual property portfolio in the area. CSIRO is developing products for, and with, the plant, livestock, aquaculture, animal biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries.

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