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Published on April 19, 2024
UMass Amherst Researcher Awarded $936K NIH Grant to Democratize Protein Analysis with Innovative TechSource: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are paving the way for a revolution in how we view the building blocks of life, proteins. Chemical engineering associate professor Sarah Perry is spearheading the charge with a new grant from the National Institutes of Health. The grant, totaling $936,000 over three years, is set to fund the development of technology that could change the game for scientists and pharmaceutical companies alike, by allowing them to witness proteins in motion, UMass Amherst reported.

"We are looking to enable the next generation of structural biology experiments to allow scientists to learn more about drug binding, develop new therapeutic proteins or understand basic biology," Perry told UMass Amherst. With the focus on making complex scientific experiments more accessible, she added, "People have been able to make videos of protein structures before. The challenge is that doing the experiments is hard. We are developing technology to make it easier. In this sense, we are hoping to democratize it as a method, which could be revolutionary."

Traditional methods such as X-ray crystallography have been around since the 1960s, giving scientists a static look at proteins. However, these techniques fall short of capturing their dynamic nature. "Proteins are machines," says Perry. They twist and move, actions that aren't represented in a single, frozen image. Think of trying to understand a soccer game from still photos instead of a video - it's lacking, Perry illustrates.

The NIH-backed project envisions a device that can maintain thousands of protein crystals, each a frame in the animated story of a protein's life. By observing proteins through various stages, scientists could potentially design more targeted drugs with fewer side effects. "However, there could be subtle differences in how the two proteins move," Perry notes, which is crucial in developing effective medications, according to UMass Amherst. Previous methods struggled outside of the realm of light-sensitive proteins, but Perry and her team are expanding the possibilities by introducing an array of triggers, such as chemical reactions and electrical stimuli to mimic the proteins' natural habitats.

This endeavor wouldn't be possible without key players like Sarthak Saha, Perry's Ph.D. student-turned-postdoctoral researcher who played a central role in conceptualizing the device. Saha has been instrumental in bridging the gap between the lab's innovations and the needs of protein researchers. The ultimate goal for Perry is to not only finalize a series of devices suited to a broad spectrum of experiments but also to collaborate with national labs, ensuring that the technology reaches and benefits a wide scientific community.

Boston-Science, Tech & Medicine