From AIDS to COVID-19: The promise of RNA therapeutics

McGill prof brings more than three decades worth of research to new Centre for RNA Sciences

Anne Gatignol, PhD, has explored the molecular world of RNA and RNA viruses for more than 30 years. A virologist recognized internationally for her work on virus-cell interactions during HIV replication, she is a Professor in the Department of Medicine (Division of Experimental Medicine) and Department of Microbiology and Immunology in McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

“RNA therapeutics are very promising,” says Prof. Gatignol. “They have tremendous potential, not just against viruses and infectious diseases, but also cancer, cardiovascular diseases and many other diseases.”

Also a Senior Investigator at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research, Prof. Gatignol heads the Virus-Cell Interactions Laboratory in the Molecular and Regenerative Medicine Axis. Currently, her lab is developing RNA therapies against Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), as well as conducting recent work on the Zika virus.

“These therapies could be adapted by other researchers to target different RNAs and treat other pathologies,” she says.

Prof. Gatignol looks forward to the increased collaborations that will be possible due to McGill’s new Centre for RNA Sciences. “It’s much better to work with colleagues who have complementary expertise,” she says, noting that the therapies being developed in her lab could achieve better stability and have improved delivery systems through collaborations with other Centre members.

“We will all work on RNA from different perspectives and synergize the development of new strategies for improved treatments,” she says. “Everybody will benefit from each other.”

Prof. Gatignol began her career as a pharmacist in her native France. After working in that field for a few years, she decided to pursue her strong interest in molecular biology. She obtained her PhD in microbiology from the Université de Toulouse in 1988, working on antibiotic resistance genes.

“The AIDS epidemic started when I was in France doing my PhD,” she recalls. She received multiple offers to work on HIV when she began looking for post-doctoral positions. “So, I chose to focus on HIV research, because there was a lot to discover in the virus mechanism of action and there was a great need to do something to stop the epidemic.”

She moved to the United States and completed a first post-doctoral position in the Department of Biochemistry at George Washington University, and then a second with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. She returned to France to work as a researcher at the Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale and the Cochin Institute in Paris, before relocating to Canada for family reasons and joining McGill.

While AIDS is no longer a fatal disease, an effective vaccine and an effective cure against HIV remain major unmet needs, notes Prof. Gatignol. Does she hold out hope for a cure? She is cautiously optimistic. “We have some good candidates. If we can continue our work for a few more years, we will optimize these molecules. It’s a long procedure, but yes, I have some hope.”

Affiliated with the McGill Centre for Viral Diseases and FRQ-S Réseau SIDA et Maladies Infectieuses, Prof. Gatignol is involved in multiple collaborations domestically and around the world, including the United States, Australia and Europe.

Her lab’s current projects involve the innate cell response to HIV infection, the development of RNA-based technologies to counteract HIV replication, and the relationship between HIV and the RNA interference pathway. She is involved in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the Experimental Medicine and the Microbiology and Immunology programs, where she coordinates the Viral Pathogenesis course.

With her extensive experience researching HIV, Prof. Gatignol was well-placed to be tapped as an expert when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged.

“The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines using mRNA technology has opened the eyes of the entire world — and of investors — that RNA is a valuable molecule,” she says. “It has an enormous potential in many fields, not just relating to mRNA vaccines, but also to many other RNA therapies.”

Prof. Gatignol points out that the success of the mRNA vaccines was a result of many years of fundamental research and the hard work of many scientists. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic provided the opportunity for the technology to be proven in the real world.

“Now, because the vaccines worked, suddenly everybody is interested in RNA,” she says with a smile. “And now, we can be better prepared for many other diseases.”

Read more about the Gatignol Lab.


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