Researcher Selected for Lilly Award to Refine Novel Method for Finding RNA Drug Targets

Modeled image of viral RNA generated by Moss Lab ScanFold method.
A 3D model of a ScanFold-predicted structure from SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA generated by the Moss Lab at Iowa State University.

AMES, Iowa – A new research award from the Eli Lilly Research Award Program will fund a collaborative research project with Iowa State University scientists researching innovative methods for finding previously overlooked targets for drug therapies in ribonucleic acid.

RNA, a single-stranded molecule encoded within our genome, plays a key role in gene expression and is implicated in most human diseases. 

The $123,000 award supports the work of assistant professor Walter Moss and his team in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology with Lilly scientists. The award aims to expand and enhance their innovative method of analyzing RNA structure using a tool they called ScanFold.

ScanFold was originally designed to analyze viral RNA, including the types found in viruses such as Zika, HIV and coronavirus. It has since been adapted to study human RNA, and the new grant will help the researchers refine ScanFold to make it a better platform to develop drug therapies.

Originally developed in 2018 with help from Ryan Andrews, a doctoral candidate in Moss’ lab, the ScanFold tool uses computer-based bioinformatics to identify unusual sequence patterns in RNA that are likely to significantly influence function. These patterns form shapes that govern how RNAs interact with other molecules, including proteins and small molecules that are the basis of drug therapies.

“We designed ScanFold with a basic research focus, not necessarily as a drug-discovery tool,” Moss said. “But it has a lot of potential for applied research; in this case, to identify RNA regions that could be targets for drugs. The idea that we can use drug therapies to affect the RNA of disease-associated human genes, viruses and other pathogens is quite novel.”

The Eli Lilly Research Award Program is a competitive program whereby proposals are co-developed by a Lilly scientist and an external researcher, submitted to a multidisciplinary team at Lilly and selected according to the novelty and potential impact of the work.

Several Lilly scientists will work with Moss and his team on the project. A Lilly chemist originally reached out to Moss about a partnership after hearing one of Moss’ collaborators talk about the ScanFold tool at a conference.

“Our focus during this coming year will be to make the tool more widely useful,” Moss said. “The award from Lilly is special because we plan to work together, and then share with the rest of the world everything we’ve created and learned.”

The research team will include Andrews and two members of Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Research IT Department, Director Levi Baber and staff member Nick Booher, who will assist with coding ScanFold accessory tools and host the databases and web servers that generate and store ScanFold results.

Moss, Andrews and Baber recently published an article describing the use of ScanFold, Mapping the RNA Structural Landscape of Viral Genomes, in the peer-reviewed journal “Methods.”