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Lewin, Alfred S: Professor

Developing RNA-Based Gene Therapies

Non-coding RNA (ncRNA) molecules have achieved superstar status in genetics and molecular biology.   These are small RNA molecules that do not encode proteins or stable RNAs (rRNA or tRNA)  but appear to exert a major influence on the transcription and translation of messenger RNA (mRNA).  We have been using two types of non-coding RNA, siRNAs and ribozymes, in attempts to regulate gene expression  in order to cure dominantly inherited diseases and viral infections.  Small interfering RNAs (siRNAs), are  short RNA duplexes that lead to the degradation of targeted messenger RNAs using a protein apparatus called  RISC. Ribozymes are RNA enzymes that cleave RNA molecules without the aid of proteins. Scientists in my group are designing these small RNAs to block the synthesis of mutant RNAs that lead to disease and to block the spread of human herpes virus.

Delivery of ncRNAs

To deliver the therapeutic RNA molecules we use Adeno-associated virus (AAV) vectors.  These non-pathogenic viruses are able to stably infect many tissues and cell types. AAV has been particularly useful in delivering  genes, including small RNAs, to many parts of the eye and brain. Unlike retroviruses, recombinant AAV does  not insert into chromosomes, disrupting genes, but remains stable as an extrachromosomal genetic element.  We can tailor the delivery of ribozymes and siRNAs by varying the capsid of the virus or by choosing a  cell-type specific promoter element. This selectivity allows us to provide a continuous supply of  ncRNA to specific cells without affecting neighboring tissues in which their production might be harmful.

Disease Targets

Our research has focused on developing therapies for dominantly inherited diseases of the central nervous system. Dominant inheritance may indicate that a mutation confers some new toxic property to a protein or  it may mean that the resultant protein can no longer fit in as part of a multi-subunit complex.  In either  case, inheritance of the gene from either parent leads to disease.  We are working primarily with dominant  mutations that cause retinal degeneration in such diseases as retinitis pigmentosa. Our goal is to suppress   the synthesis of the defective proteins that cause photoreceptors to die, while at the same time to increase   the production of normal versions of the same proteins. In rodent models of retinitis pigmentosa, this approach has been successful.
We are also collaborating with other investigators at the University of Florida to use this approach  to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington Disease and Parkinson Disease. Aggregates of  mis-folded protein are associated with neuronal damage in both diseases, and we hope that block the  production of the mutant protein will be beneficial.  We are using the same approach to try to combat  Herpes Simplex Virus infections of the cornea. Reactivation of herpes infections leads to scarring of  the cornea, and is the leading infectious cause of blindness.  We have characterized some ribozymes  that block herpes replication in animals. These ribozymes may be useful in cases in which conventional  drug therapy has failed. Finally, we have used these same tools—AAV-delivered siRNAs and ribozymes—in  efforts to develop animal models of ocular diseases including age related macular degeneration and Leber  Hereditary Optic Neuropathy.  These efforts have helped us understand the causes of tissue damage in these difficult diseases.


Postdoctoral Fellow, Biozentrum, University of Basel
Ph.D., University of Chicago
B.A., University of Chicago


Awards, Professional Service:

Junior Faculty Research Award, American Cancer Society
Established Investigator, American Heart Association
UF Research Foundation Professor, 2003
Jules Stein Living Tribute Award, Retinitis Pigmentosa International, 2003
Shaler-Richardson Professorship, 2004-present
Member, Advisory Panel on Cell Cycle and Growth Control, American Cancer Society, (1997-1998)
Member, NIH Genes, Genomes, and Genetics Study Section, 2004-2012
Member NIH DPVS Study Section, 2012-2015
Editorial boards, Mitochondrion, Molecular Vision, PLoS One, Experimental Eye Research

Teaching Responsibilities:

MGM Graduate Coordinator
BMS 5300C Medical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases
BCH 7410 Advanced gene Regulation
GMS 5905 RNA interference and microRNAs
GMS 6121 Infectious Diseases
GMS 6905 IDP Laboratory Rotations
GMS 6971 Masters Research
GMS 7191 Research Conference
GMS 7979 Advanced Research
GMS 7980 Doctoral Research

Recent Inventions from the Lewin Lab (link)

Recent Inventions from the Lewin Lab (link)