BACKGROUND: The ability of transfected synthetic small interfering (si) RNAs to suppress the expression of specific transcripts has proved a useful technique to probe gene function in mammalian cells. However, high production costs limit this technology's utility for many laboratories and experimental situations. Recently, several DNA-based plasmid vectors have been developed that direct transcription of small hairpin RNAs, which are processed into functional siRNAs by cellular enzymes. Although these vectors provide certain advantages over chemically synthesized siRNAs, numerous disadvantages remain including merely transient siRNA expression and low and variable transfection efficiency. RESULTS: To overcome several limitations of plasmid-based siRNA, a retroviral siRNA delivery system was developed based on commerically available vectors. As a pilot study, a vector was designed to target the human Nuclear Dbf2-Related (NDR) kinase. Cells infected with the anti-NDR siRNA virus dramatically downregulate NDR expression, whereas control viruses have no effect on total NDR levels. To confirm and extend these findings, an additional virus was constructed to target a second gene, transcriptional coactivator p75. CONCLUSION: The experiments presented here demonstrate that retroviruses are efficient vectors for delivery of siRNA into mammalian cells. Retrovirus-delivered siRNA provides significant advancement over previously available methods by providing efficient, uniform delivery and immediate selection of stable "knock-down" cells. This development should provide a method to rapidly assess gene function in established cell lines, primary cells, or animals
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