Propelling Swiss RNA Research Forward

The NCCR RNA & Disease started its second four-year phase in 2018: Time to look back at the first four years.

From its middle position within the central dogma of molecular biology, RNA has progressively moved center stage in the life sciences over the last decades. Several essential processes taking place at the RNA level have been discovered only quite recently – a development likely to continue in the near future. Due to the essential role of gene expression for life, these findings touch upon nearly every process in the body.

Not surprisingly, alterations in RNA metabolism therefore contribute to, or are even at the root of, the pathomechanisms of many diseases – with the number of such cases showing an upward trend. These discoveries cannot only be applied for diagnostic purposes and outcome of disease predictions, but the involved molecular players represent potential drug targets as well. Moreover, several regulatory approvals over the last four years are proofofprinciple that RNA is druggable through oligonucleotides.

The NCCR RNA & Disease officially started its operations on May 1st, 2014, and its main funders are the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and its coleading houses, the University of Bern and ETH Zurich. According to the SNSF NCCR website, “NCCRs promote longterm research networks in areas of strategic importance for Swiss science, the Swiss economy and Swiss society”, with a number of main distinguishing features that include outstanding internationally visible research, knowledge and technology transfer, education and the promotion of women. Furthermore, NCCRs should have a long-lasting positive effect on the field in Switzerland after they run out, i.e. after the potential maximum of twelve years of operations. Finally, NCCR research is expected to create significant added value through collaboration.

Besides direct collaborations between research groups, access to technologies can boost research interactions as well. NCCR researchers have access to eight technology platforms. Most of these platforms exist thanks to the NCCR RNA & Disease, while others are accessible to NCCR researchers at more favorable conditions. The NCCR RNA & Disease constantly revisits its technology platform portfolio to keep up with technological developments and the researchers’ needs. A recent example is the new Structural Mass Spectrometry platform, which was implemented as of the beginning of phase 2 and is advancing several NCCR projects already.

The propelling effect that the NCCR has had on Swiss RNA research manifests unmistakably at the level of publications. During phase 1 both the total number of publications acknowledging NCCR support and joint publications increased every year. Of note, more than half of all publications (and specifically of the collaborative ones) appeared during the last year of phase 1.

The increase in collaborative publications and projects – a number of them launched botto-mup as a result of PhD students and postdocs meeting at NCCR events – attests to the high appreciation among the researchers for the added value that the NCCR RNA & Disease network provides. To foster exchange and joining forces between different labs (including non-NCCR and outside Switzerland), the NCCR awards lab exchange grants, which complement the SNSF mobility grants. More and more collaborative bridges are being built also with and among the associate members, who otherwise do not receive core research funding. The high number (currently 22) of associate member groups thus clearly testifies to the network’s attractiveness. Besides the associate members, also new member groups joined the network during phase 1.

Among the key members who joined during phase 1 are the junior principal investigators. Supporting junior PIs, who have the crucial career transition to a tenured position still ahead of them, is one measure contributing to the perenniality of the field. Two of our junior principal investigators obtained tenured positions at their Swiss institutions during phase 1 and became now full members for phase 2. Also of note is that four out of nine junior PIs during phase 1 were female scientists.

The NCCR RNA & Disease strives to help its male and female PhD students and postdocs to balance family duties and the advancement of their careers. The aim here is also to create long-lasting effects for the field and its researchers. Besides the flexibility grants (formerly called 120 % support grants) by the SNSF, the NCCR devised a complementary scheme called the “Pregnancy and Maternity Leave Compensation”, which pays for a technician’s salary during the last three months of pregnancy, who should then be able to advance the project with minimal guidance during the maternity leave absence. Moreover, NCCR researchers can apply for reimbursement of Emergency Childcare funding. In order for young researchers to interact with role models in the field, so far nearly every seminar speaker participated in lunches with PhD students and postdocs.

The seminar series is one of the key educational activities of the NCCR RNA & Disease. Others include the RNA Biology PhD Program and the Predoc Program RNA & Disease Switzerland, as well as two semester-long lectures at the University of Bern and at ETH Zurich, and biannual summer schools. Of note, the seminar series also provides international visibility via the speakers, who are international leaders in the field, which will hopefully attract RNA researchers from abroad.

Increasing the visibility and raising awareness are two of the goals of the communication activities of the NCCR. Here, the aim is not only to promote the NCCR as a network, but also the importance of our research topic at large, ideally in a collaborative effort together with specific target audiences. While the internal communication is judged to be overall rather satisfactory, through meetings, email lists, the Newsletter and the NCCR’s website, new activities towards other audiences (e.g. the general public, the medical community, the pharmaceutical industry) will be further developed during Phase 2. Highlights of the communication activities towards the general public were the three participations to the Night of Research in Bern (2017) and the Zurich Science Days Scientifica (2015 & 2017), which each attracted thousands of visitors. The main lesson learned at these occasions was that with an appropriate format and communication instruments, even the rather complex research topics typically covered within the NCCR RNA & Disease can be successfully communicated to a lay audience. The communication efforts towards the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry are intertwined with the NCCR’s Knowledge and Technology Transfer (KTT) activities.

During the first phase, numerous contacts between NCCR researchers and representatives of the pharmaceutical industry took place. Several patents were filed by NCCR researchers and for some projects, financial or substantial resource contributions were received from the companies involved in these projects. To boost translational activities, two new grant schemes are in the process of development and will be announced in the near future. In phase 2 the NCCR RNA & Disease will continue to propel Swiss RNA research forward – hopefully at an even faster rate.

Article by NCCR Communications