On June 15, the Santé Gala will be hosted by the Rosalind and Morris Goodman Cancer Institute (GCI). The gala will celebrate the legacy and future of mRNA biology research at the GCI. Amidst the pandemic, RNA came to the forefront of the public discussion, with the dazzling development and roll-out of mRNA vaccines. mRNA functions as an intermediary, allowing the genetic information encoded by DNA to be read and translated into proteins. Proteins play a vital role in the functions of our biology as they give structure to our cells and tissues, and perform a multitude of chemical reactions and signals within the body including the production of antibodies and other immune molecules.
The excitement for RNA might be new, but its newfound use would not be possible without the generations of researchers who contributed to uncovering its role in biology. This legacy of basic research is deeply rooted in the GCI. Nahum Sonenberg, Ph.D., his former trainee Jerry Pelletier, Ph.D., and his former post-doctoral fellow Thomas Duchaine, Ph.D., are all preeminent RNA scientists and McGill Professors with the GCI.
Since 1975, Sonenberg has contributed to understanding the fundamental mechanisms of mRNA translation. In the context of the COVID-19 vaccine, translation is the process that produces the spike protein, which is recognized by the immune system to grant immunity. In 1988, Nahum Sonenberg and Jerry Pelletier showed how viral mRNAs are produced or translated differently from human mRNAs. In 2007 and 2009, Nahum Sonenberg and Thomas Duchaine described fundamental processes that dictate the activity of micro-RNAs. Like mRNAs, micro-RNAs are potential therapies that could be leveraged to treat various diseases like cancer and genetic disorders.
The expertise of RNA scientists is sought after by the pharmaceutical industry; In 2012, Moderna consulted Nahum Sonenberg. He discovered in 2017 an essential chemical modification to RNA molecules, enabling mRNA vaccines to be translated efficiently without over-activating the immune system. Moderna, including this chemical modification in the formulation of their COVID-19 vaccines three years later, marks an emblematic accomplishment for Nahum Sonenberg, as most scientists dream of seeing their work impact society. To read a brief history of Sonenberg and his scientific contribution to mRNA biology, click here.
We thank all the Santé Gala Attendees for their generous support and for continuing to build the legacy of research for years to come. If you, too, wish to contribute to decades-long efforts to push science from the laboratory to the patient bedside, please consider donating to the GCI.