Originally created 05/15/04

Professor urges more RNA study



The ability to use ribonucleic acid to block the output of defective genes could be an important tool in the molecular battle to cure disease, a 1989 Nobel Laureate in chemistry said. But visiting scientist Sidney Altman warned Friday that the federal government is risking future discoveries and might lose some of its best scientists if it is stingy with research funding.

Dr. Altman, a Sterling Professor of biology at Yale University, was the keynote speaker Friday night at the 10th anniversary gala for the Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics at the Medical College of Georgia.

He was a co-winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the revolutionary discovery that RNA could act as an enzyme without proteins. The findings gave strength to the theory that RNA, which usually converts stored genetic information from DNA into useful proteins, could have performed those functions by itself, making it a prime candidate for how some of the earliest complex life evolved.

Even so, it is not a theory he is sold on.

"I'm not sure that the first unicellular organism only had RNA as its chief molecule or not, or whether proteins had already evolved to that point," Dr. Altman said. The harsh conditions billions of years ago also would make it doubtful that RNA could survive, although that first organism might have been an RNA-like molecule or one that could perform similar functions.

Of more immediate interest is RNA's potential role in curing disease, said Robert Yu, the director of the MCG institute. Because it carries the message from DNA's genetic material, blocking that message could prevent the impact of a defective gene, Dr. Altman said.

Yet promising advances could be threatened by a lack of support for the National Institutes of Health, which provide a great deal of the research funding, he said.

"The budget of the NIH has been severely limited last year and this coming year by the Bush administration," Dr. Altman said.

The recommendation for the coming fiscal year is $28.7 billion, an increase of 2.7 percent over the previous year. The institutes are also taking on new responsibilities for bioterrorism, he said.

"That means that a lot of people who are funded or who might be funded this year will not get funded any more," he said. Yet historically, "an investment in science and technology has been one of the best investments a country can make."

It's an argument the MCG institute can certainly make. For about $5 million in funding, the institute is pulling in more than $12 million in outside grants, Dr. Yu said.

"So that's a 2-1 (return on) investment," he said. "Any businessperson knows that is a very good investment."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.