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Extracellular RNA Communication

NCATS supports innovative and collaborative approaches in translational science that are cross-cutting and applicable to the broad scientific community. Extracellular RNA (exRNA) communication is a recently discovered cell-to-cell signaling process that holds enormous promise for improving our understanding of a wide variety of diseases.

Scientists are beginning to understand the potential exRNA research may hold for improving diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of diseases and conditions such as cancer, bone marrow disorders, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis. But researchers need to know more about basic exRNA biology.

Most RNA works inside cells to help translate genes into proteins that are necessary for organisms to function. Other types of RNA control which proteins and the amount of those proteins the cells make. Until recently, scientists believed RNA worked mostly inside the cell that produced it. Now, findings show cells can release RNA in the form of exRNA to travel through body fluids and affect other cells. ExRNA can act as a signaling molecule, communicating with other cells and carrying information from cell to cell throughout the body.

A Collaborative NIH Effort

To advance this new field of research and address a collective scientific need, NIH launched a new program called Extracellular RNA Communication in July 2012. The collaborative, cross-cutting Extracellular RNA Communication program is supported by the NIH Common Fund and led by a trans-NIH team that includes NCATS; the National Cancer Institute (NCI); the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI); the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Scientists supported by this program, which spans the entire spectrum of translational research from discovery to treatment, are exploring:

  • How cells make and release exRNA
  • How exRNA travels through the body
  • How it targets specific cells and affects other cells
  • How the amount and types of exRNA can change in disease
  • How scientists can use exRNA to develop new therapies

Ultimately, these scientists will form the ExRNA Consortium to collaborate, share information, and spread knowledge to the larger scientific community and public. Specifically, they will explore using some exRNA as biomarkers, or indicators of the presence, absence or stage of a disease. These biomarkers may enable scientists to understand and diagnose diseases earlier and more effectively. They also will use exRNA to develop molecular treatments for conditions including neurological disorders and cancer.

2013 Research Projects

In August 2013, NIH announced $17 million in awards for 24 research projects in a number of critical scientific areas in response to the following requests for applications: RFA-RM-12-010, RFA-RM-12-012, RFA-RM-12-013 and RFA-RM-12-014.

NCATS is administering 18 of the projects in response to RFA-RM-12-013 and RFA-RM-12-014 to develop biomarkers from exRNA found in body fluids and to design new ways to use exRNA in treatments.

NCI will oversee five projects in response to RFA-RM-12-012 that address how cells make and release exRNA (biogenesis), how and where exRNA travels through body fluids to other cells (biodistribution), how cells take in exRNA that is traveling through body fluids (uptake), and how exRNA changes the function of cells (effector functions).

NIDA will support a project in response to RFA-RM-12-010 to develop a Data Management and Resource Repository that will house all of the data generated by these projects, including a public ExRNA Atlas website to serve as a community-wide resource for exRNA research standards, protocols, data, tools and technology.

All 24 awards are milestone-driven cooperative agreements. Individual projects will be supported for up to five years, except for the Data Management and Resource Repository, which could be supported longer. To learn more about the research projects, visit the NIH Common Fund website.

Related Links

NIH News Release

NCATS 2013 ExRNA Project Awards

All 2013 ExRNA Project Awards

ExRNA Communication Program

FAQ About ExRNA Communication


Danilo Tagle

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UCLA exRNA researchers in the lab

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For More Information

NIH News Release

NCATS 2013 ExRNA Project Awards

All 2013 ExRNA Project Awards

FAQ About ExRNA Communication

ExRNA Video

NIH Director's Blog on ExRNA