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The RNA Institute’s Director Marks 50 Years of Discovery and Inspiration

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 24, 2016) — A 50-year anniversary is a time for looking back, no matter what the years commemorate. For Paul Agris, director of The RNA Institute and a groundbreaking researcher in the field of RNA science since 1966, there is one aspect of his career he reflects upon and prizes most: advancing young researchers and inspiring the RNA researchers of the future.

“That is the love of my life,” said Agris, whose career was acknowledged during the dinner which took place near the close of the Institute’s 3rd Annual RNA Symposium on RNA Science on March 18. “It’s the reason I am still in academics. I take a lot of pride in the accomplishments of the students and faculty that I mentor.

“The people who came to the banquet and symposium to celebrate with me are representative of the success my students have had. They have gone on to have successful and rewarding careers; they are department chairs, deans, vice presidents in major pharmaceutical companies, and entrepreneurs who have started their own companies with technologies they developed in their own labs.”

He remembers a time when an experienced hand made all the difference for his own future. “My PhD mentor at MIT was a pioneer in RNA biochemistry at a time when little was known about how RNA was produced in cells. I attribute my interest in RNA to my PhD advisor.”

Agris was recruited from North Carolina State University in 2009 to pilot the creation of The RNA Institute, a global alliance of top genetic scientists and biomedical investigators. A renowned and continuously federally funded biochemistry innovator and expert in nucleic acid design, he led the RNA Society of North Carolina for more than a decade. He had also founded two companies dedicated to advancing RNA drug technology and discovery.

But The RNA Institute offered a unique opportunity to advance the field. “Long before The RNA Institute was conceived, I believed there was a need for a center in the U.S. that developed tools — including technology, methods, and materials — specific for the study of RNA basic science and its applications to therapeutics and diagnostics,” he said.

“The fact is, we’re running out of protein-based drugs and diagnostics to treat and cure disease. RNA-based therapeutics and diagnostics are an unexplored frontier for treating and curing human disease. However, the scientific community was lacking the tools to understand RNA as a diagnostic tool and therapeutic. Not enough scientists were studying RNA because they lacked the tools, yet the potential of RNA was becoming evident to the pharmaceutical industry.

“The idea of a center was ahead of its time, and The RNA Institute is now the leader in developing tools that are taking research programs into new directions.”

At the Symposium, Agris talked about the necessary “passion” that drives a researcher to work so tirelessly for decades. Typical of his dedication to science, the celebration of his career included no tributes. He took the opportunity to deliver a 45-minute keynote address on his latest research into RNA therapeutics, aimed at conquering disease.

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