Towards leadership: Australia's priorities in RNA science and technology

12 October 2021

With the successful development of mRNA-based vaccines against COVID-19, interest and investment in the field of RNA biotechnology are on the rise. New opportunities are emerging for Australia to develop RNA-based products and services for global markets.

To define the RNA science and technology priorities of Australia, the National RNA Science and Technology Roundtable was held on 29 July by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australia and New Zealand RNA Production Consortium (ANZRPC). Now, the complete proceedings of the roundtable have been released.

“This roundtable was a step forward in presenting a united voice on RNA science and technology in Australia: what we are capable of and what we have the potential to achieve,” said Professor John Shine, President of the Australian Academy of Science, in the foreword to the proceedings. 

The proceedings mark the discussions of 38 experts in RNA biology and biotechnology on Australia’s historical place in RNA research to inform policymakers and science funders.

After balancing Australia’s strengths against emerging global trends, the group of experts determined a list of research priorities, namely RNA vaccines, RNA therapeutics, RNA sensing tools, RNA in plant and animal development, RNA in brain function and disorders, RNA chemistry, stability and advanced manufacturing of RNA therapeutics, and RNA delivery technologies. 

The RNA national roundtable was hosted by the Australian Academy of Science and the Australia and New Zealand RNA Production Consortium. Image: Australian Academy of Science

Professor Thomas Preiss from the John Curtin School of Medical Research, the Australian National University, was one of the organisers and participating experts at the roundtable.

As a member of the ANZRPC, Professor Preiss started by sharing the history and goals of the group with the participants. Formed in mid-2020, the ANZRPC consists of RNA researchers from universities around Australia and New Zealand working towards strategies to help end the COVID-19 pandemic and to build stronger RNA-based R&D ecosystems and biotech industries.

The pandemic and the subsequent rise of public awareness of RNA science and technology laid the context for the roundtable. In five sessions of discussion, participants covered emerging research in RNA science and technology, analysed opportunities for and barriers to international cooperation in the field, and scrutinized strengths and weaknesses in the Australian research, development, and commercialisation pipeline.

When it comes to the role Australia should play in this trending field of research, Professor Preiss argued that Australia, albeit a small player, should strive to push boundaries instead of simply following a model that has worked elsewhere.

“We should establish Australia as a leader, not a follower,” he stressed.

With courageous leadership from the government, Professor Preiss noted, Australia can play a leading role in the disruptive industry of RNA biotechnology.

Meanwhile, to break new grounds will also require the whole Australian RNA community to work together to take advantage of international opportunities. Professor Preiss encouraged RNA researchers in fields covering all domains of life, ranging from prokaryotes to animals, to come out of their silos and work together to help realise the full potential of RNA. 

A national mission for the whole RNA science and technology pipeline is required, the group concluded, for Australia to play a leading role in the global ecosystem of RNA science.