La Jolla institute for Allergy & Immunology opens center to study how genes trigger diseases

La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology on Thursday celebrated the opening of a new center aimed at pinpointing the specific genes involved in causing immune diseases, cancer and other diseases.

Utilizing RNA interference (RNAi), the new RNAi Center is one of a small group of facilities dedicated to this technology worldwide.

Sonia Sharma, Ph.D., the RNAi Center’s scientific director, said in a press release that “RNAi lets us explore the function of each gene, so that we can determine how it fits into the disease process,”

Using RNAi, researchers can shut off individual genes, one at a time, in order to figure out which functions they control, she explained, noting that once medical researchers know a certain gene is a major contributor to a specific disease process, they can make it a target for future drug development.

Andrew Z. Fire and Craig C. Mello won the 206 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2006 “for their discovery of RNA interference — gene silencing by double-stranded RNA,” according to the prize committee’s website.

Mitchell Kronenberg, Ph.D., the La Jolla Institute’s president and chief scientific officer , said the opening “represents a milestone for fueling research on the genetic basis of diseases.”

He is co-principal investigator with Anjana Rao, Ph.D., a prominent genetics and cell biology researcher recruited from Harvard Medical School last year.

The center was funded through a $12.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) and is supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the NIH.

The center is designed to be a collaborative resource for scientists at academic research institutions on the Torrey Pines Mesa and around the country, according to the press release, which noted that Scripps Research Institute scientists, David Nemazee and Changchun Xiao, Ph.D.s, are working with LJIAI to lead one of the center’s first four projects.

Drawing on the La Jolla institute’s immunology expertise, the projects are aimed at discovering how the body recognizes bacteria and viruses and fights infectionsand at understanding how the immune system can sometimes hurt the body. They also will explore what genes cause these problems, which underlie the development of autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis — all areas of focus for LJIAI.