The human genome has been mapped. Now, it's on to proteins, a much more daunting task. There are 20,300 genes, but there are millions of distinct protein molecules in our bodies. Many of these hold keys to understanding disease and targeting treatment.
A team led by Northwestern University chemical biologist Neil Kelleher has developed a new "top-down" method that can separate and identify thousands of protein molecules quickly. Many have been skeptical that such an approach, where each protein is analyzed intact instead of in smaller parts, could be done on such a large scale.
The promise of a top-down strategy is that the molecular data scientists do collect will be more closely linked to disease.
"Accurate identification of proteins could lead to the identification of biomarkers and early detection of disease as well as the ability to track the outcome of treatment," Kelleher said. "We are dramatically changing the strategy for understanding protein molecules at the most basic level. This is necessary for the Human Proteome Project -- the mapping of all healthy human proteins in tissues and organs -- to really take off."
Kelleher is the Walter and Mary E. Glass Professor of Molecular Biosciences and professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. He also is director of the Proteomics Center of Excellence and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
Kelleher says his approach is conceptually simple. "We take proteins -- those swimming around in cells -- and we measure them," he said. "We weigh proteins precisely and identify them directly. The way everyone else is doing it is by digesting the proteins, cutting them up into smaller bits called peptides, and putting them back together again. I call it the Humpty Dumpty problem."
The new strategy, Kelleher says, solves the "protein isoform problem" of the "bottom-up" approach where the smalle
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