Until recently, scientists believed RNA worked mostly inside the cell that produced it. Some types of RNA help translate genes into proteins that are necessary for organisms to function. Other types of RNA control which proteins and how much of those proteins the cells make.
Now, investigators have shown that 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 better understanding of basic exRNA biology could open doors to improving the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of diseases and conditions such as cancer, bone marrow disorders, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis.
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A Collaborative NIH Effort
NIH launched the cross-cutting Extracellular RNA Communication program to advance the field of exRNA research and address collective scientific needs. The program's goal, which spans the entire spectrum of translational research from discovery to treatment, is to find out:
- How cells make and release exRNAs.
- How exRNAs move 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 exRNAs to develop new therapies.
Funded scientists have formed an ExRNA Consortium to collaborate, share information, and spread knowledge to the larger scientific community and the public. Specifically, they are exploring the use of some exRNAs 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 exRNAs to develop molecular treatments for conditions including neurological disorders and cancer. Learn more about these projects.
The NIH Common Fund supports the ExRNA Communication program, which is led by a trans-NIH team including NCATS; the National Cancer Institute; the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute; and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Learn more about funding for the ExRNA Communication program.