(May 2017) As Richard Davis and David Bentley explain it, the RNA Bioscience
Initiative is the center of universe, the theory of everything and the
best way to improve our knowledge of life on Earth.
associated with every cell. It doesn’t matter what disease. It doesn’t
matter what topic. It’s relevant to virtually every cell in
everything,” said Davis, PhD, director of the RNA Bioscience Initiative
and professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics.
Davis’ fellow director of the RNA Bioscience Initiative, Bentley, PhD,
professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics, is similarly
“RNA biology is a very inclusive field because it has
really expanded so much, it’s sent its tentacles out in so many
directions,” Bentley said. “It’s got applications that go far beyond
basic science. It’s an ideal initiative in a medical school because it’s
something that clinicians and basic scientists can unify around and share common interests.”
RNA Bioscience Initiative is one of the five Transformational Research
Funding projects funded by Dean John Reilly, MD, and in its first year,
Davis and Bentley have sprinted out of the gate with a far-reaching
community-building, faculty-recruiting, apprentice-training,
grant-making, technology-testing program.
The excitement of being
scientists in charge of crafting an influential new campus program has
been focused by the administrative responsibility of the task.
“It’s very exciting and it’s a lot of work” said Davis.
feel good about the fact that we’re spreading money for RNA biology
kind of far and wide and diffusely about the campus,” Bentley said. “I
would also say I feel rewarded that there’s such good interaction with
people in medicine, with clinicians. I think we’re making some headway in getting them integrated. We will continue to do that.”
In its first year, the RNA Bioscience Initiative has
• Provided seed grants to nine campus investigators to support research projects, selected from about three dozen applications;
• Supported four graduate students for a year as RNA Scholars;
• Hired a new faculty member and continued to recruit others;
• Created an RNA Club where students, postdocs and faculty give
45-minute chalk talks about their research;
Purchased a controller for generating single-RNA sequencing libraries
that will be available for researchers through the campus Genomics
• Sponsored a seminar series, branded by the RNA Bioscience
Initiative, bringing distinguished lecturers and emerging leaders to
The scope and pace of activity are intended to expand the
RNA expertise in the campus research community and to make crucial
connections with clinicians and educators. Understanding the basic
biology is a necessary step to establishing diagnostic capabilities and
therapeutic breakthroughs that will improve the human condition.
really pretty much all-encompassing,” Davis said. “It spans the whole
thing. Probably more than any other field, there have been more
surprises in how pervasive RNA is in its regulation of different things
and its different functions than in almost any other field.”
that point clear is the list of seed grant recipients who are
researching kidney disease, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, embryonic
cells in neural development and myelodysplastic syndrome. The
applications for grants up to $50,000 came from “endocrinology,
pathology, infectious diseases, pharmacology, rheumatology,
anesthesiology, neuro, I mean it’s everything,” Davis said. “And it
really spans a very broad spectrum.” While the reach of the program is
wide, Davis and Bentley are attentive to the details in how the RNA
Bioscience Initiative manages interactions of participants.
example, the RNA Club speakers are specifically instructed to engage in
“chalk talks” rather than to present projected images on a screen.
not supposed to use slides,” Davis said. “They’re supposed to draw.
It’s designed to be informal, to engage, and to have more interaction
and more discussion.”
And they practice what they preach.
In presentations about the RNA Bioscience Initiative to the School of
Medicine’s Faculty Senate and Ex-ecutive Committee, Bentley wrote on a
whiteboard rather than using the PowerPoint presentations that are
The initiative’s community-building endeavors
have extended beyond the boundaries of the Anschutz Medical Campus. The
leaders have chartered buses to take members of the RNA Bioscience
Initiative to meetings of the long-established RNA Club at CU Boulder.
initiative has also established relationships between beginners and
experts. A summer internship program welcomed six undergraduate
students, who were paired with faculty mentors, as they sought to gain
The undergraduates attend lectures on RNA
by Davis and on how to design experiments by senior faculty. “Every
mentors’ lab had to have someone come in and talk about research and
give a presentation,” Bentley said. “There was an educational
“These are kids in college who want to get exposure to
research because they want to find out what it is,” Davis said. “Maybe
they know they want to go to graduate school and they know they have to
have that experience. If they want to go to medical school, it also
won’t hurt to have that experience.”
“And maybe we’ll attract them later,” Davis said.
The RNA Scholars, who are four graduate students on the Anschutz Medical
Campus, get a stipend and a small discretionary fund – $2,000 – to
support their work. They can use it for a computer or to attend a
meeting. In addition, the leaders have created the RNA Bioscience travel
award, which supports students who got to meetings and present posters
or give talks.
While strengthening the campus community, the RNA Bioscience Initiative is also investing in support services for those conducting RNA-related research, evaluating sequencing equipment and hiring Kent Riemondy, PhD, as an informatics fellow.
expertise is critical for researchers because the amount of data can
overwhelm the capacity to understand it, so improving the ability to
conduct the analysis is paramount. “Many people consider it the
rate-limiting step in analysis today,” Davis said.
All the while,
the program has also been actively looking to hire rising stars in the
field, posting ads and bringing prospective faculty members to campus.
The RNA Bioscience Initiative recently announced that Olivia Rissland,
PhD, assistant professor of molecular genetics at the University of
Toronto, will be joining the School of Medicine faculty this fall.