The Women of RNA: Two Award-Winners Share Why They Spent Their Careers Studying DNA's Lesser-Known Cousin
When Lynne Maquat, who leads the Center for RNA Biology at the University of Rochester, became interested in the ribonucleic acid molecule in the 1970s, she was definitely in the minority. The same was true for Joan Steitz, now professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University, who began to study RNA a decade earlier in the 1960s.
"My first RNA experiment was a failure, because we didn't understand how things worked," Steitz recalls. In her first undergraduate experiment, she unwittingly used a lab preparation that destroyed the RNA. "Unknowingly, our preparation contained enzymes that degraded our RNA."
At the time, scientists pursuing genetic research tended to focus on DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid — and for good reason. It was clear that the enigmatic double-helix ribbon held the answers to organisms' heredity, genetic traits, development, growth and aging. If scientists could decipher the secrets of DNA and understand how its genetic instructions translate into the body's functions in health and disease, they could develop treatments for all kinds of diseases. On the contrary, the prevailing dogma of the time viewed RNA as merely a helper that passively carried out DNA's genetic instructions for protein-making — so it received much less attention.
But Maquat and Steitz weren't interested in heredity. They studied biochemistry and biophysics, so they wanted to understand how RNA functioned on the molecular level — how it carried instructions, catalyzed reactions, and helped build protein bonds, among other things.
"I'm a mechanistic biochemist, so I like to know how things happen," Maquat says. "Once you understand the mechanism, you can think of how to solve problems." And so the quest to understand how RNA does its job became the focus of both women's careers.
"People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time."
Half a century later, in 2021, their RNA work has earned two prestigious recognitions only months from each other. In February, they received the Wolf Prize in Medicine, followed by the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize in May, awarded to scientists whose achievements led to prevention, cure or treatments of human diseases.
It was the development of the COVID-19 vaccines that made RNA a household name. Made by Moderna and Pfizer, the vaccines use the RNA molecule to deliver genetic instructions for making SARS-CoV-2's characteristic spike protein in our cells. The presence of this foreign-looking protein triggers the immune system to attack and remember the pathogen. As the vaccines reached the finish line, RNA took center stage, and it was Maquat's and Steitz's research that helped reveal how these molecular cogwheels drive many biological functions within cells.
If you think of a cell as a kingdom, the DNA plays the role of a queen. Like a monarch in a palace, DNA nestles inside the cell's nucleus issuing instructions needed for the cell to function. But no queen can successfully govern without her court, her messengers, and her soldiers, as well as other players that make her kingdom work. That's what RNAs do — they act as the DNA's vassals. They carry instructions for protein assembly, catalyze reactions and supervise many other processes to make sure the cellular kingdom performs as it should.
There are a myriad of these RNA vassals in our cells, and each type has its own specific task. There are messenger RNAs that deliver genetic instructions for protein synthesis from DNA to ribosomes, the cells' protein-making factories. There are ribosomal RNAs that help stitch together amino acids to make proteins. There are transfer RNAs that can bring amino acids to this protein synthesis machine, keeping it going. Then there are circular RNAs that act as sponges, absorbing proteins to help regulate the activity of genes. And that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to RNA diversity, researchers say.
"We know what the most abundant and important RNAs are doing," says Steitz. "But there are thousands of different ones, and we still don't have a full knowledge of them."
Critical to RNA's proper functioning is a process called splicing, in which a precursor mRNA is transformed into mature, fully-functional mRNA — a phenomenon that Steitz's work helped elucidate. The splicing process, which takes place in cellular assembly lines, involves removing extra RNA sequences and stringing the remaining RNA pieces together. Steitz found that tiny RNA particles called snRNPs are crucial to this process. They act as handy helpers, finding and removing errant genetic material from the mRNA molecules.
A dysfunctional RNA assembly line leads to diseases, including many cancers. For instance, Steitz found that people with Lupus — an autoimmune disorder — have antibodies that mistakenly attack the little snRNP helpers. She also discovered that when snRNPs don't do their job properly, they can cause what scientists call mis-splicing, producing defective mRNAs.
Fortunately, cells have a built-in quality-control process that can spot and correct these mistakes, which is what Maquat studied in her work. In 1981, she discovered a molecular quality-control system that spots and destroys such incorrectly assembled mRNA. With the cryptic name "nonsense-mediated mRNA decay" or NMD, this process is vital to the health and wellbeing of a cellular kingdom in humans — because splicing mistakes happen far more often than one would imagine.
"We estimate that about a third of our mRNA are mistakes," Maquat says. "And nonsense-mediated mRNA decay cleans up these mistakes." When this quality-control system malfunctions, defective mRNA forge faulty proteins, which mess up the cellular machinery and cause disease, including various forms of cancer.
Scientists' newfound appreciation of RNA opens door to many novel treatments.
Now that the first RNA-based shots were approved, the same principle can be used for create vaccines for other diseases, the two RNA researchers say. Moreover, the molecule has an even greater potential — it can serve as a therapeutic target for other disorders. For example, Spinraza, a groundbreaking drug approved in 2016 for spinal muscular atrophy, uses small snippets of synthetic genetic material that bind to the RNA, helping fix splicing errors. "People can now appreciate why some of us studied RNA for such a long time," says Maquat.
Steitz is thrilled that the entire field of RNA research is enjoying the limelight. "I'm delighted because the prize is more of a recognition of the field than just our work," she says. "This is a more general acknowledgment of how basic research can have a remarkable impact on human health."
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby