BUFFALO, N.Y. – Thanks to efforts like the Human Genome
Project, scientists are unraveling the role that genes play in the
development of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
But knowledge of proteins, another essential molecule linked to
many of the same ailments, is less advanced.
That is changing due in part to UB researcher Sheldon Park, who
received a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to develop
technology that dramatically reduces the time it takes to
“We are creating a method that allows scientists to
examine what role proteins play in the cell. Typically, this type
of research takes months to perform. Now, it can be done it just a
few days,” said Park, UB assistant professor of chemical and
The breakthrough technology could be useful in proteomics, a
field of study which examines how proteins function in the cell. In
what many see as the next step after sequencing the human genome,
proteomics aims to create a functional description of the human
body’s estimated million or so unique proteins.
By examining this data, scientists may find clues as to why
cancer, Parkinson’s Disease and other ailments develop. It
could lead to the development of drugs and other treatments, and
possibly even a cure for the diseases.
Until recently, however, such research didn’t seem
The human body consists of roughly 21,000 genes, each of which
can spawn proteins of different size and function. Given the
complexity of the protein network, it has been difficult to
characterize what proteins do despite efforts from pharmaceutical
companies, government agencies and research institutes.
Researchers often study proteins by creating
temperature-sensitive mutant proteins which work like the original
proteins at low temperatures but stop working at higher
temperatures. By comparing the growth and metabolism of cells at
different temperature, scientists can determine the mutated
The problem: creating temperature sensitive mutants is not easy
and often impossible. Typically, researchers must screen a few
thousand mutants. With some luck, they may discover a useful one.
This painstaking process can take months and it needs to be
repeated for each protein studied.
“It’s a very laborious process and, unfortunately,
not very predictable,” Park said.
To simplify the matter, he is designing a module that, when
fused to a protein, converts the protein into a temperature
sensitive mutant. A key element of the design is an enzyme called
intein, which can be used to shuttle the protein to different areas
of the cell by changes in temperature. As the protein moves from
one area of the cell to another, scientists are able to infer its
function by examining what happens in the cell.
The technology has the potential for wide use in chemical
research, biotechnology, medicine and other fields.
“The grant will also allow us to develop a method that
uses an engineered intein to synthesize useful protein molecules in
the lab,” Park said. “In turn, this will give
researchers the ability to gather information about unknown
proteins and develop novel treatments or biotechnology
“Understanding the functions of proteins will have
significant impact on the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses
caused by mutations,” he said.