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Zohaib Rana in front of biochemistry building entrance

Zohaib Rana in front of the Biochemistry building entrance.

Dr Zohaib Rana is starting his career in commercial medical research at full speed after finding out that he is one of the lucky few to be selected for the 2024 KiwiNet Emerging Innovator Programme.

Zohaib is a postdoctoral researcher at Amaroq Therapeutics, a commercial medical research company that is part of Dr Sarah Diermeier’s research group in the Department of Biochemistry. Through the programme he will receive $10,000 in project funding, and will learn about research commercialisation through KiwiNet courses on intellectual property, venture capital, investor relations, and effective networking. He will use the project funding part of the programme to develop RNA structural biology as a tool to advance cancer drug discovery at Amaroq.

Zohaib knows that studying RNA is very important.

During the first year of his PhD in small molecule drug discovery (with Professor Rhonda Rosengren in Otago’s Department of Pharmacology), Zohaib went to a talk given by Dr Sarah Diermeier about her research on lncRNAs in cancer.

He recalls that he said to himself at the talk, “Damn, this is cutting edge stuff!” and that he was impressed enough to go and talk to Sarah about her research further. They ended up writing a review article together, and after he completed his PhD Zohaib took up a position in Amaroq Therapeutics as a research scientist and a project manager.

RNA, which is chemically similar to DNA, used to be known as the molecule that passively transfers genetic information from DNA into proteins. Most people will have heard of mRNA used in COVID-19 vaccines, where this ability to transfer genetic information is central to how the vaccines work. But recent decades of research have uncovered myriads of other roles for RNA molecules within cells, and also in the development of diseases like cancer.

Yes, RNA is composed of only four nucleotides and stores genetic information, like DNA does, but unlike DNA (and more like chemically complex proteins) RNAs can fold themselves into many different and complex structures, which leads to the functional diversity of this class of molecule.

This is why Zohaib has taken the plunge into RNA structural biology research.

If he can find out the shape and structure of a particular RNA molecule, and how it interacts with its protein binding partners, he can start to design drugs that specifically target those interactions and disrupt the effects of that RNA.

He plans to use a range of biochemical techniques to deduce structural information on RNA molecules, such as:

SHAPE-seq - Uses chemical probing and nucleic acid sequencing to provide information about what parts of an RNA are unpaired and more flexible.

CLIP-seq - Uses cross-linking, immunoprecipitation and nucleic acid sequencing to identify the parts of an RNA that are bound by a specific RNA-binding protein.

RNAfold structure prediction – Software that predicts secondary structure of RNA molecules.

These are all techniques he can carry out in the lab at Amaroq. He is also planning to use the KiwiNet project grant to learn other biophysical structural techniques, such as cryo-electron microscopy, in laboratories overseas. These will help him gain further structural insight into target RNA molecules to inform new drug design at the atomic level.

The KiwiNet courses will help to re-orient him towards research in a less academic, more commercial space. He recently returned from a trip to Christchurch where he completed one of the first short courses – on market validation. As well as educating himself in this area, he intends sharing the commercial knowledge he picks up with others at Amaroq.

You can find out more about research in the Diermeier lab on Dr Sarah Diermeier’s profile pageand the Amaroq Therapeutics web site.

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