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Harvard and Rensselaer Researchers Join UAlbany’s RNA Institute Faculty Ranks

Jia Sheng (left) and Alan A. Chen bring expertise in RNA structure and the use of x-ray crystallography to the Institute's ongoing effort to combat human disease.

ALBANY, N.Y. (November 25, 2013) — The RNA Institute at the University at Albany announces the addition of two research scientists who will support the Institute’s collaborative RNA research efforts to combat the most difficult of human diseases. Jia Sheng and Alan A. Chen bring their expertise in predicting RNA structure and testing it using x-ray crystallography to the national research resource.

Jia Sheng joined UAlbany this fall after completing a research fellowship in the lab of Dr. Jack Szostak, the 2009 Nobel Laureate, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor at Harvard Medical School and Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

Alan A. Chen, who will join UAlbany in January, has been a member of the research group of physicist Angel Garcia, award winning Fellow of the American Physical Society, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). Both researchers are joining the faculty as assistant professors in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Both scientists approach RNA structure prediction while using different disciplines/approaches. Sheng experimentally uses a method known as X-ray crystallography and Chen applies data from X-ray crystallography and other approaches to his structure prediction algorithms to improve the accuracy of prediction methodology for RNA structures.

“The hiring of these two young faculty provides a combination of disciplines that is fantastic for predicting RNA structure and testing it by x-ray crystallography,” said Paul Agris, director of The RNA Institute. “Taking an interdisciplinary approach to RNA science is critical for making scientific breakthroughs and achieving funding in today’s research environment.”

About Sheng

Sheng’s research interests include synthesis of and structural insight into functional RNA, with a focus on paths to non-enzymatic RNA replication, and RNA functional and crystal structures. Utilizing The RNA Institute’s extensive RNA modification database, he is synthesizing RNA with different modifications and carrying out structural studies of complexes of modified RNA with their partner proteins in order to figure out more details about the dynamic biosynthesis pathway and working mechanisms of each modification. These could ultimately direct novel drug targets.

While earning his Ph.D. in bio-organic chemistry from Georgia State University, Sheng received the 2009 Graduate Award for Outstanding Research at the Doctoral Level and was also named Best Overall Chemistry Graduate Student. He has more than 20 journal publications, including manuscripts in revision or in preparation, six invited reviews and book chapters, our patents and nine presentations at different conferences.

About Chen

Chen received his Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics from Washington School of Medicine in 2009. His research interests focus on molecular dynamics simulations of RNA, simulations of electrolytes and RNA-ion interactions and the biophysics of RNA-protein interactions.

He was co-author with RPI’s Garcia on a September 2013 study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science on the development of the first computational model to accurately simulate the complex twists of a short sequence of RNA as it folds into a critical hairpin structure known as a “tetraloop.” The research is a glimpse into RNA, found in all life on Earth, and could advance a variety of research areas, including the search for new antibiotics and cures for protein-related diseases.

Chen received a National Institutes of Health Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship for his study on “Simulating Ion Modulated Stability of Retroviral Kissing-Loop Complexes.” A kissing loop is a highly stable complex formed by loop–loop base-pairing between two RNA hairpins. This common structural motif is utilized in a wide variety of RNA-mediated processes.

About The RNA Institute

Launched in June 2010, The RNA Institute conducts cutting-edge research for development and delivery of innovative medicines, vaccines and diagnostics. The national research resource recently unveiled its state-of-the-art facility for RNA biomedical technology development and commercialization. The new space utilizes an “open source” model where leading researchers from around the globe can collaborate on investigative efforts into designing RNA technologies and drug therapies for the treatment of such diseases as cancer, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, and ALS.

The RNA Institute now boasts several research collaborations with institutions such as Albany Medical College and RPI, as well as public-private partnerships with global corporations, Albany Medical Research, Inc., Sigma-Aldrich and ThermoFisher Scientific. The Institute has established a network of research affiliates with more than 50 laboratories nationwide encompassing more than 350 researchers, as well as a scientific advisory board with Nobel Laureate and National Academy of Sciences members.

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