Decades in the making: RNA's importance to Australia

ATA Scientific Pty Ltd

By Peter Davis
Wednesday, 10 August, 2022

Decades in the making: RNA's importance to Australia

As RNA science continues to make headlines around the world as the new way of making safer, more targeted medicines, it has sparked a wave of new studies that offer significant potential not only for broad-spectrum vaccines but also treatments for cancer, genetic and autoimmune diseases.

This is quite extraordinary, given that prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, few people outside the RNA research community were aware that this technology even existed. That Australia is still unable to manufacture mRNA vaccines — despite their proven success against the SARS-CoV-2 virus — presents a huge opportunity.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought together world-leading researchers in a mass response from across many fields, diverting resources to deliver a vaccine that could help save millions of lives. Scientists stepped up and worked tirelessly despite the myriad of challenges, the biggest one of which was the challenge of vaccine supply. Recognising this challenge, and the need for building local capability, a humble yet exceptionally talented scientist from Iceland chose to step up and run the first RNA institute in Australia.1

Australia’s RNA capability strengthens as UNSW RNA Institute opens

Professor Pall (Palli) Thordarson, an award-winning researcher and chemistry professor at UNSW Science, is set to kickstart RNA capabilities in NSW and finally launch our genetic medicine ecosystem. Fuelled by his interest in the interface between chemistry and biology, Palli has always been fascinated by the role of RNA, and now this molecule is the focal point of his work. RNA science seems like an overnight success, but it has been decades in the making and holds huge potential for making critical contributions towards advancing human health. The UNSW facility will allow scientists to connect and network with industry partners and other collaborators to meet research and manufacturing needs.

A superhero in the making…

The importance of driving onshore advances in RNA research and therapies

The NSW Government is now involved, together with 14 universities that constitute the NSW RNA Bioscience Alliance and the dozen research organisations within the NSW RNA Production Research Network.2 The goal to create a national genetic medicine manufacturing facility in Australia was captured during an early meeting of the Australian RNA Production Consortium (ARPC). It is inspiring to see so much occurring around the nation knowing each of the original members of the ARPC is tirelessly working to build this, in a fashion that is not simply replicating facilities in each state, but building a collaborative web of skills and infrastructure. These people have changed the future for scientific research in Australia — thank goodness for this cognisant few!

It seemed puzzling to find a chemistry expert amongst so many RNA giants; however, as time passed, it became clear the sheer value someone like Palli had in such a forum. Palli’s fascination with RNA began to emerge early in his PhD: “I remember looking at RNA and RNA-based systems biology as a PhD student and thinking, ‘These are the most fascinating chemical machines in the world’,” he said. Palli has long tried to connect the dots between the pure chemistry world and the biological sciences and just how that chemical machine results in a biological translation.

As we expend inordinate efforts to educate and develop a constant crop of scientists, from high school to early-career researchers, we hear the same things from PhD students today as we did back in the 1980s and I suspect before: “We can’t find work as we are either too inexperienced or we are overqualified!” Such enormous investment into this ecosystem can only help resolve much of this.

Whilst there is a great deal of investment into Victoria and some in Queensland, there are synergies between the research institutes and many collaborations. The global nature of science has throughout history proven there are no boundaries, no borders and only one tribe — the science tribe. We see beyond nationality and we travel the planet in a quest for knowledge, going to where the research is. To be part of this global community, Australia needs vision such as shown by Palli; without this, we could never attract the best of the best to come to Australia, nor would we retain our global giants.

UNSW RNA Institute official opening.

Next-generation technologies will nurture a wide range of genetic medicines

Being privy to much of the research, and seeing the technologies you supply have material impact in the future lives of potentially millions of people is inspirational. Consider this technological revolution answers the question we didn’t even know existed — to solve a problem we didn’t know we had. As Palli often states: the missing link to this manufacturing ecosystem is the humble lipid nanoparticle.

Now humble should not elicit the thought that it is simple — far from it — however, it has been made a great deal simpler by the NanoAssemblr platform.3 These technologies create very small particles, quickly and repeatedly. They encapsulate a payload, such as mRNA, a peptide, protein or small molecule for delivery to the cell by stealth. Imagine you are a cancer researcher and you have figured out the mechanism of how cancer cells are replicating and where they stem from. Using a Nobel Prize-winning technique called CRISPR, you edit the RNA — how do you do this? Hitch a ride inside a lipid nanoparticle, slip into the tumour and stop it in its tracks! This is elite science happening in Sydney with team collaborations across the nation. We can do wondrous science that will save lives — this is what drives the scientist. The government sees the billions in revenue and the possibility of jobs, jobs and jobs. It makes ethical and economic sense!

For those who assume it is just medical, think again. The agricultural industry is set to benefit from multi-millions in investment with the help of Palli to aid in biosecurity, disease prevention and control — think lumpy skin or foot-and-mouth disease in cattle. It is hard to see any downside to what Palli has orchestrated. It is visionary and all power to UNSW backing him to run down this path. Nice to see Palli back on the farm.

ATA Scientific collaborates with thousands of scientists throughout Australia and New Zealand, providing solutions for scientific challenges. The company is constantly adding novel technologies that help pose the obscure questions needed to advance science.

  1. Website Accessed 19 July 2022.
  2. Website accessed 19 July 2022.
  3. Website accessed 19 July 2022.

Top image: UNSW RNA Institute laboratory.

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