Dismantling Dangerous Genetic Codes With A Faster, More Flexible RNA Mimic

OK, so maybe you can't fool Mother Nature, but that hasn't stopped a chemist at Washington University in St. Louis from imitating her.

James K. Bashkin, D. Phil., assistant professor of chemistry at Washington University, has created a molecule that mimics the behavior of a kind of naturally occurring RNA (ribonucleic acid) called a ribozyme, which acts as a catalyst. Bashkin's ribozyme mimic can dismantle the dangerous genetic codes involved in propagating viral and fungal diseases, certain cancers and even the HIV virus. The discovery shows great promise for improved viral and cancer chemotherapy and other potential drug treatments.

In 1994, Bashkin was the first scientist to make synthetic ribozymes, and the first to publish on the concept, which was conceived and patented in the mid-1980s while working with colleagues at Monsanto's Corporate Research Laboratories in St. Louis. About the same time, two other researchers suggested an alternative, organic approach to ribozyme mimics, which differed from Bashkin's metal-based ideas. Since then, several academic research groups and biotechnology companies have been hot on the trail of developing and testing Bashkin's ribozyme mimic design, or variations of it.

In the May 1998 issue of the Journal of Chemical Communications, Bashkin reported a newer, improved ribozyme mimic with the flexibility to home in on several specific regions of an HIV gene and cleave the RNA to destroy the harmful genetic message. He reported a higher level of specificity and greater dismantling speed than before. Several biotechnology companies now are planning to test the mimics in live cell cultures, moving Bashkin's concept closer to clinical trials.

"Dramatic Control"

"We've developed dramatic control over the specificity of the mimics as well as their reaction rate, or speed," said Bashkin. "Specificity is important because if you miss the targeted spot, you have the possibility of damaging normal RNA. S

Contact: Tony Fitzpatrick
Washington University in St. Louis

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