A magazine for friends of the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

The Missing Pieces


Brown has real potential to make significant contributions to RNA science.

This issue of Medicine@Brown offers an opportunity to expand your understanding of RNA, the mysterious regulator of the blueprint of life that we are striving to understand even as we develop tools that utilize it.

Little mRNA was the superhero that saved the day during the COVID-19 pandemic, when it became the backbone of vaccines that have spared millions of lives around the world. The basic science groundwork that had been laid years before—and which led to a Nobel Prize in 2023 for the scientists who discovered it—paid off in an astonishingly fast way just when we needed it most. Now work is underway to use RNA in other vaccines and treatments for diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and even cancers.

The catch is there is so much that we don’t know about RNA. There are at least another half-dozen types of RNA and for many we still do not understand their function. Plus, RNAs can be modified after they are made and we lack the technology to understand their structure, let alone their function! That’s why one of my priorities has been an RNA center that would bring together researchers from various disciplines to advance the understanding and technology to sequence and delineate the function of RNA as well as develop therapies, diagnostics, and vaccines that could be derived from it. This initiative builds on existing pockets of strength in RNA research, on a thriving biomedical engineering enterprise and strong ties to Brown’s School of Engineering, and on investments in translational research that will ensure this technology can be licensed or spur homegrown start-ups.

We’ve made some giant leaps in the last six months. Juan Alfonzo, PhD, whom you will meet in this issue, brought his lab to the Division of Biology and Medicine and established the Brown RNA Center in October. New lab space for RNA researchers has been outfitted at the Wexford building adjacent to the med school. And in January, leading RNA scientists from around the globe met in Providence to outline the steps to take toward sequencing the human RNome—a landmark event akin to those that led up to the Human Genome Project more than 20 years ago.

This is a fast-moving space and I look forward to sharing future developments with our community. RNA is exciting—for the Division and the Medical School; for the University; and for human health. We have real potential to make significant contributions to alleviating suffering from disease, and it’s a thrill to see it happening here at Brown.


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