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PBL issued with pioneering patent

24 January 2012

Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL), the UK technology management company part owned by BBSRC, has been granted a US patent which describes methods for inducing gene silencing in plants and animals. The newly patented techniques are expected to have wide-ranging application in crop improvement as well as in human medicine.

Gene silencing, also known as RNA interference (RNAi), is a natural mechanism of gene regulation that is found in most complex organisms and is the focus of tremendous activity in the life science industry. Used widely in research for gene discovery and for the characterisation of gene function, in systems as diverse as plants and animals, silencing also holds great promise as a therapeutic tool. 'Gene therapy' applications are being developed for ailments as diverse as cancer, viral diseases and obesity.

The new patent (issued 17 January 2012) acknowledges the role of short RNA molecules as the common mediators of gene silencing in different organisms as well as protecting the use of short RNAs for the purpose of inducing the silencing of a target gene in a cell. It comes as further recognition by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) of the pioneering contributions made by BBSRC-funded researchers Professor Sir David Baulcombe and Dr Andrew Hamilton to the field of silencing, and builds on earlier patents awarded to PBL by the USPTO, which describe methods for detecting gene silencing in plants and mammals.

Baulcombe and Hamilton's research at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, which was funded in part by BBSRC, resulted in a ground-breaking paper that was published in Science in 1999 (A Species of small antisense RNA in posttranscriptional gene silencing in plants, 286, pp. 950-952). The paper provided the first identification of short RNA molecules as the active agents of silencing. The presence of short RNA molecules can also be used as a diagnostic test for the existence of gene silencing. For instance, in plants, it may be desirable to silence genes to confer an improved trait such as enhanced growth and yield, or the ability of plants to resist pathogens or stresses such as drought.

Another potential use of silencing in crop enhancement would be, for example, to induce short RNA molecules a plant, in order to silence an appropriate and specific target gene in another, pathogenic or predator organism, such as a nematode or insect pest.

PBL's Managing Director, Dr Jan Chojecki, said, "We are very pleased that our efforts in working with the US Patent Office have resulted in issuance of this patent. It is an excellent example of how innovations in a specialised field can, once recognised, have impact across many other areas of research, discovery and beneficial application. It is also a tribute to the quality of fundamental research carried out in public research laboratories in the United Kingdom. We look forward to answering any licence inquiries in connection with the issuance of this patent."