Iowa State Student Selected for NIH Fellowship to Expand the Druggable Human Genome

Warren Rouse headshot
Warren Rouse, graduate student in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, Iowa State University. 

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University graduate student Warren Rouse has been selected to receive a prestigious Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The award aims to enhance students' potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists.

Funding from the award will support Rouse’s studies under the co-mentorship of Walter Moss, assistant professor in the Roy J. Carver Department of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Molecular Biology, and Matthew Disney, professor at the Scripps Research Institute, for up to five years, beginning in June. Rouse’s research will focus on expanding knowledge of the druggable human genome, including structural motifs in RNA that can bind small-molecule drugs. 

“I’m excited at the chance this award will provide to make an important impact,” Rouse said. “Growing up in a small town in eastern Iowa, I never imagined I would be spearheading a research project with such potential global impact! I am grateful for the opportunities presented here at Iowa State and for the support offered by the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Award, which will allow me to focus 100% on my research.”

RNA, a single-stranded molecule encoded within our genome, plays a key role in gene expression and is implicated in most human diseases. Over 85% of our genome is transcribed into RNA. The vast majority of drugs, however, target proteins, whose genes only constitute a tiny fraction of the human genome.

“RNA represents a massive reservoir of targets for next-generation drugs, even if only part of it turns out to be druggable,” Moss said.    

To unlock the part of the human genome that is currently undruggable, Rouse will integrate two bioinformatic “pipelines” established in each of his mentors’ labs. He will apply ScanFold, a program developed by the Moss Lab at Iowa State to discover unusual structural elements in RNAs that make them potential drug targets. These motifs will then be evaluated via Inforna, a chemical informatics program developed by the Disney Lab, to predict which small molecules are most likely to strongly bind to RNA structures.

The initial focus will be on the broad application of these tools to the human genome, homing-in on genes of exceptional interest to medicine, such as cancer genes for which there are currently few effective drugs.

“Warren’s research has potentially transformative reach in advancing a totally new way of treating disease,” Moss said. “Modulating RNA biology with small molecules can have big impacts in how we deal with cancer, autoimmune disease and pathogenic infection. This research aims to tackle early questions essential in this process — how we discover good targets.”