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University of Maryland partnership receives $7.9M from NIH for superconducting research magnet

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland, in partnership with the University of Maryland, Baltimore and University of Maryland Baltimore County, has received a $7.9 million federal grant to acquire a superconducting 950 MHz Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) magnet that will help researchers unravel the mysteries of molecules and develop new agents to treat cancer, AIDS and other diseases.

The grant is among the largest of its kind ever awarded by the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. The funds were made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The instrument - scheduled to be installed in November 2011 at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore - will be shared equally among the three campuses and used by researchers throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Only one other site in the United States currently has a 950 MHz NMR spectrometer, and the University of Maryland partnership will be the only academic group in the country to have this powerful technology.

David Fushman, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland, is a co-director of the grant, and will lead the College Park team that includes several biochemists and cell biologists whose research will be enhanced by the new NMR spectrometer.

David J. Weber, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the NMR core facility there, and AIDS researcher Michael F. Summers, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, are co-directors with Dr. Fushman.

The eight-ton magnet produces a supercharged magnetic field that enables scientists to investigate the three-dimensional structure of biological molecules and study their interactions with the highest degree of resolution.

"This 950 MHz NMR spectrometer is optimal for studying large proteins," explains Fushman, an expert in protein structure and dynamics who is associated with the university's Center for Biomolecular Structure and Organization (CBSO). "This will allow us to move into structural and biophysical studies of protein assemblies that include more than 1000 amino acids, as well as large complexes of proteins and nucleic acids. We can begin to decipher interactions between important biological macromolecules that we could not study before. This is huge!"

Fushman conducts biochemical and biophysical studies to understand the molecular basis of how proteins are marked for degradation by a signaling protein called ubiquitin. Once a protein is tagged by ubiquitin chains, it is then disposed of by a multimolecular complex called the proteasome. "The proteasome is like a big molecular shredder which grinds up proteins that are no longer needed or which have become misfolded or abnormal," Fushman explains. "It controls the cell life cycle, and we know that if it isn't functioning properly, it could lead to the development of cancers, or neurological diseases like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, or Huntington's, or problems with the immune response."

Kwaku Dayie, associate professor, and Vitali Tugarinov, assistant professor, both in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and members of CBSO, will also be key users of the new technology. Both have been leaders in the development of NMR methods that allow and facilitate studies of large macromolecules. Jonathan Dinman and Anne Simon, both professors of cell biology and molecular genetics and experts in the study of viruses, will also utilize the spectrometer to advance their research.

"The capabilities of this ultra high field/high frequency NMR will create unique opportunities for life sciences researchers in Maryland," says Norma Allewell, vice president for research and professor of cell biology and molecular genetics at the University of Maryland. "The extraordinary resolution of the results that can be generated with this new instrument will provide unparalleled insights into the structure, dynamics, and function of the proteins and nucleic acids that are critical to life, and that also play a role in many diseases for which effective treatments are still sought. The University of Maryland has recruited a team of NMR experts and users that are fully prepared to exploit the unique capabilities of this new resource to gain new insights into cellular function, to develop new approaches to treating some of society's most challenging diseases, and to work with the biotech community to translate these discoveries into new therapies."

The 22.3 Tesla superconducting magnet is so powerful that it creates a magnetic field approximately 400,000 times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field. Though the magnet is well shielded, researchers still take precautions when using it. The instrument initially will have 35 users - including 10 major core users - and will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Fushman anticipates that the three partner institutions will develop research collaborations and build a community of scientists who share their research results through an ongoing seminar series.


Contact: Kelly Blake
University of Maryland

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