CNAST receives gift

Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Nucleic Acids Science and Technology (CNAST) brings together researchers to form a multidisciplinary approach for developing synthetic nucleic acids that have the potential to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of various diseases. Recently, the center received a gift from the DSF Charitable Foundation for $3.1 million.

Bruce Armitage, professor of chemistry, biological sciences, and biomedical engineering and co-director of CNAST, explained that a large portion of the center’s research involves peptide nucleic acids (PNAs), which are synthetic analogs to the DNA and RNA found within living organisms. Their similarity allows PNAs to bind to DNA and RNA in the cell, impacting gene function.

In 2006, CNAST researcher and Carnegie Mellon associate professor of chemistry Danith Ly developed a double-stranded form of PNA called Janus PNA. Armitage said that “researchers from around the world were intrigued and wanted a sample to use in their own experiments.” The researchers founded a biotech startup called PNA Innovations, Inc. to market the newly developed synthetic nucleic acid. Armitage added that “the new funding will enable Dr. Ly to further develop Janus PNAs and incorporate some of his newer ideas to improve the molecule.”

The DSF Charitable Foundation’s goal is to promote excellence in the three program areas of health, human services, and education. CNAST’s projects have the potential to develop tools for improving understanding of biological functions. After understanding the cause of complex diseases, the molecules developed by CNAST could be used to generate treatments for a plethora of diseases, such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s Disease, and various cancers.

In addition to research, CNAST plays a large role in promoting excellence in education. Armitage, referring to an educational outreach program called DNAzone, which targets K-12 students, explained that the program’s goal is to “expose students to the modern and exciting state-of-the-art aspects of nucleic science and foster their interest in science and mathematics.”

Armitage said that when he and another Carnegie Mellon professor, John Woolford, started CNAST, their goal was to build a network of researchers. Many years later, CNAST has become a community of researchers at both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.