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Physician Resource

Researcher Highlight Q&A: Mariano A. Garcia-Blanco, MD, PhD, RNA Biology & Immunity

Mariano A. Garcia-Blanco, MD, PhD, is a leading researcher into the intersection of RNA biology and immunity. He also chairs the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology at UVA Health.

His lab's research has two key potential applications:

  • Novel therapeutics for autoimmune diseases and cancer
  • Vaccines and/or treatments for dengue, yellow fever, and Zika

He recently published research that identified a key determinant of individuals' risk for multiple sclerosis. Shortly before, his published research detailed how mosquito saliva weakens our defenses against dengue.

Garcia-Blanco was recently inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS). The National Institutes of Health have continuously funded his research for more than 30 years — since 1991.

Watch Garcia-Blanco discuss his research and read his answers to our questions.

What are you working on right now?

My laboratory works on the interface between RNA biology and immunity. While we have known for a while that there is a special connection between RNA and RNA-binding proteins and immunity, only recently have we understood the molecular details of this connection.

We study how:

  • Disruptions in the metabolism of cellular RNAs can lead to abnormal activation of inflammatory pathways
  • Viruses use their RNAs to confuse the immune system and promote weak innate immune responses
  • A type of RNA-binding proteins called RNA helicases control autoimmune diseases susceptibility

What is the most intriguing potential clinical application of your work?

Our work on RNA helicases discovered a new gene expression pathway that results in the production of a soluble version of the interleukin-7 receptor and high levels of this protein increase the propensity for autoimmune diseases.

This realization led us to start developing the first monoclonal antibodies specific for the soluble form of interleukin-7 receptor. These antibodies are in pre-clinical studies that will hopefully lead the way to clinical trials in less than two years.

What recent discovery/paper/presentation has impacted the way you think?

Recent work describing how viral RNAs can be transmitted between cells by extracellular vesicles has significantly impacted my thinking.

What made you choose UVA Health as the place to do your research?

I was impressed with the caliber of the faculty and vision of the leadership at the university as a whole.

What do you wish more people knew about your area of research?

I wish more people would realize that the remarkable applications of RNA biology (e.g., the development of mRNA vaccines that effectively protect against severe COVID) have almost all been based on fundamental research, which is usually driven by basic curiosity. 

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