Ribonucleic acid (RNA) was once thought to exist in a stable form only inside cells, where it served as an intermediate in the translation from genes to proteins. However, recent research has indicated that RNAs can play a role in a variety of complex cellular functions, including newly discovered mechanisms of cell-to-cell communication. RNA can be exported from cells in extracellular vesicles or bound to lipids or proteins, to circulate through the body and affect cells at a great distance. These extracellular RNAs, or “exRNAs,” may also be absorbed from food, the microbes that live in our bodies, or the environment, potentially eliciting a variety of biological responses. However, the actual impact of these exRNAs is not known. An opportunity exists to establish entirely new paradigms of intercellular and inter-species information exchange based on the release, transport, uptake, and regulatory role of exRNAs.
In response to this opportunity, which was identified through the Common Fund strategic planning process (click here for an overview), the Common Fund has developed a new program on Extracellular RNA Communication (ERC). This program aims to discover fundamental biological principles about the mechanisms of exRNA generation, secretion, and transport; to identify and develop a catalog of exRNA found in normal human body fluids; and to investigate the potential for using exRNAs in the clinic as therapeutic molecules or biomarkers of disease.