UAlbany, UR Launch New Center of Excellence in RNA Research

A man in a jacket stands a brown University of Rochester lectern facing an audience.
UAlbany RNA Institute Director Andrew Berglund joined colleagues from the University of Rochester on May 10, 2024 to announce the new Center of Excellence in RNA Research and Therapeutics. (Photo by Adam Fenster/University of Rochester)

ALBANY & ROCHESTER, N.Y. (May 10, 2024) — The University of Rochester and University at Albany are partnering on a new Center of Excellence in RNA Research and Therapeutics focused on developing RNA-based therapies and training the next generation of New York’s biotechnology workforce.

The Center of Excellence, known as CERRT, was funded with $250,000 through Empire State Development's Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (NYSTAR) in the recently adopted New York State budget.

Home to renowned scientists with decades of experience and millions of dollars in external funding for RNA-based research, the institutions will work together to promote economic growth through continued scientific discovery and partnership with industry.

The field of RNA science has catapulted to the forefront of health and medicine over the past decade as the work of leading scientists such as Lynne E. Maquat and Andrew Berglund, the respective directors of the University of Rochester Center for RNA Biology and UAlbany’s RNA Institute, and others revealed the role that RNA plays in a multitude of diseases. 

RNA Treatments Hold Enormous Promise

Myotonic dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, fragile X syndrome and many other inherited disorders can be targeted with RNA-based treatments. The COVID-19 pandemic, meanwhile, highlighted the power of RNA to prevent disease as the development and deployment of mRNA vaccines saved untold lives and helped the U.S. economy safely reopen.

A man in a collared shirt smiles in the background, seen through a glass window with scientific writing on it.
RNA Institute Director Andrew Berglund will co-lead CERRT at UAlbany.

“The COVID-19 pandemic focused the world’s attention on the importance of RNA science and the way strategic public investments and thoughtful industry partnerships can lead to new therapies that alleviate suffering and improve quality of life across a range of diseases,” said University at Albany President Havidán Rodríguez. “Thanks to groundbreaking research by scientists in Albany and Rochester who have been leading this work for decades and dogged advocacy by assemblymembers Fahy, McDonald and Bronson, UAlbany and UR will continue to advance cutting-edge RNA science that provides high-tech jobs for New Yorkers while helping people live longer, healthier lives.”

“Our scientists have deep experience and a proven track record of important discoveries that are propelling the fast-growing field of RNA biology forward,” said University of Rochester Vice President for Research Stephen Dewhurst. “Together with our partners in Albany, we’re poised to use our knowledge and expertise to build up this Center of Excellence, bringing new discoveries closer to patients and contributing to the state’s growth as a hub for health and technology research and development.”

The CERRT joins 14 other centers based at universities across New York in the Centers of Excellence program. Managed by Empire State Development (ESD), the centers establish and advance collaborations between the academic research community and the business sector to develop and commercialize new products and technologies; promote critical private sector investment in emerging scientific fields in New York; and create and expand businesses and employment.

New State Funding Launches Center

Assemblymember Harry B. Bronson of Rochester led the charge to secure funds in the 2024-25 New York State Enacted Budget to establish CERRT, which will initially receive $250,000. The COE also received strong support from assemblymembers Patricia Fahy and John T. McDonald III, who represent UAlbany.

“Supporting an equitable and diverse array of research is critical to the success and longevity of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies in New York, but also to the economic vitality of communities throughout New York,” said Bronson, who is chair of the Committee on Labor and represents the University of Rochester Medical Center in the Assembly. “These centers attract worldwide talent to participate in and develop innovative, life-saving research. UR and UAlbany are already home to world renown medical researchers in the RNA field, and an RNA-focused Center of Excellence will give biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies — large and small — the competitive advantage they need to succeed by providing them access to leading researchers, cutting-edge technology and a pipeline of top talent.”

“This new Center of Excellence will strengthen critical ties between academic RNA research centers and biotechnology industry leaders and ensure New York’s biotech sector has the skilled workforce it needs to continue growing and innovating,” said UAlbany Vice President for Research and Economic Development Thenkurussi “Kesh” Kesavadas. “Combined with UAlbany’s investments in AI supercomputing, the research and training conducted through CERRT holds enormous potential to develop RNA-based therapies for diseases impacting tens-of-thousands of New Yorkers.

“This new center is a win all around,” said Dr. David C. Linehan, CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center and dean of the UR School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD). “Patients and families will benefit from groundbreaking work carried out between researchers in Rochester and Albany; our trainees will gain invaluable experience working with experts in university labs and in industry; and New York will emerge as a leader in this vital field. We are grateful to Assemblymember Bronson for his efforts and the Governor for her support.

“Empire State Development is strategically focused on strengthening the innovation economy and NYSTAR’s Centers of Excellence are essential to our mission,” said Empire State Development President, CEO and Commissioner Hope Knight. “This new partnership between UAlbany and the University of Rochester will encourage collaboration between academia and the private sector and will provide an environment that will commercialize new products and technologies right here in New York State.”

A woman standing at a lectern in front of a purple UAlbany banner holds up a vial used for saliva testing.
Gov. Kathy Hochul visited UAlbany's RNA Institute in January 2022 to provide New Yorkers an update on the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)

CERRT will work with large New York biotech companies like Regeneron, Pfizer and Curia to develop new therapeutics and to establish a pipeline of trained workers. According to Maquat, one of the first orders of business is to establish programs where SMD trainees engage in short-term “sabbaticals” at these companies, learning how industry operates and understanding the various roles scientists play in the private sector.

“Supporting research in life sciences is critical to the success and longevity of all biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies across New York,” said Jennifer Hawks Bland, CEO of NewYorkBIO, a leading advocate for the state’s life science community. “CERTT will provide valuable research and workforce development collaborations throughout our industry, while also helping to attract, support, and retain talent in New York at a pivotal time for our state. This new Center of Excellence will further enhance future generations’ ability to research, develop, and commercialize life-saving technologies and therapeutics for patients in New York and beyond.”

Building New York’s Biotech Workforce 

“A major goal of academic centers like Rochester and Albany is to provide our students and postdoctoral fellows with the best training possible, so they have the skills needed to pursue the career path of their choice,” noted Maquat, the J. Lowell Orbison Endowed Chair and professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics, Pediatrics and Oncology. “The Center of Excellence will ensure our trainees are competitive in the job market and help us recruit strong candidates to study and conduct research at our institutions in the future.”  

A man in lab coat is photographed through an opening in a lab shelf, framed by bottles and other lab supplies.
Distinguished Professor Thomas Begley will co-lead CERRT at UAlbany (Photo by Patrick Dodson).

Maquat will co-lead the CERRT at the University of Rochester with Eric Wagner J. Wagner, professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and a member of the UR Center for RNA Biology. Berglund will co-lead the CERRT at UAlbany with Distinguished Professor Thomas Begley of the Department of Biological Sciences, who is also associate director of UAlbany’s RNA Institute.

“Training the next generation of RNA scientists is central to the mission of UAlbany’s RNA Institute, and we are excited to partner with our UR colleagues to meet the workforce needs of New York industry and develop treatments caused by defective RNAs,” said Berglund, who the Keith Hynes Endowed Professor in STEM in the Department of Biological Sciences. The RNA Institute is embedded in UAlbany’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Investment in RNA research brings hope to people like Emily Jones and Lois E. Schenk, myotonic dystrophy support group facilitators in the Western New York-Finger Lakes region.

"First and foremost, we want to thank Assemblymember Harry Bronson for listening to what it is like for our families to live day-to-day with myotonic dystrophy, a rare form of muscular dystrophy. He compassionately listened to caregivers and affected individuals share their daily challenges in the face of overwhelming fatigue, loss of the ability to work and continuous pain,” said Jones. “The addition of a NYS Center of Excellence for RNA extended repeat diseases will fund worldclass leaders at the UR and UAlbany. Their research understanding will help pharmaceutical companies target the toxic RNA and the mechanisms that are the root cause of the disease. As a result, these companies will bring a therapeutic drug that will slow or stop disease progression of this brutal disease. Our families live with the hope of a cure that will come more quickly." 

“Treating and curing this rare disease is critical, certainly to families like mine and Emily’s, but also to the residents and government of NYS, as it is estimated that the economic burden of caring for individuals with this disease can cost the state upwards of $2 million per year,” added Schenk.