Argonne National Laboratory agreement will boost UNC-CH's research capabilities

July 12, 1999

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Thanks to a new agreement with the Argonne National Laboratory, structural biologists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill now have direct access to ultra-powerful X-ray facilities that will enable them to conduct more sophisticated biological studies and complete some projects 10 times faster.

"Having access to the Advanced Photon Source at the Argonne Laboratory is going to keep UNC researchers competitive with other structural biologists across the globe," said Dr. Edward Collins, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the UNC-CH School of Medicine.

Collins represents the university and North Carolina on the executive board of a Southeastern consortium of universities that recently signed the pact with Argonne.

"This agreement is important to many areas of biology," the scientist said. "Imagine trying to understand a world you can't see -- structural biologists bring us the pictures that allow us to `see' the biology. This machine will provide us the opportunity to see farther and to answer questions that couldn't be answered before."

The $800 million Advanced Photon Source (APS) Facility was constructed outside Chicago three years ago by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Southeast Regional Collaborative Access Team (SER-CAT), which also includes Duke, N.C. State and institutions from seven other states, is the first southeastern group to sign on. Twenty scientific teams have signed collaborative access agreements to study materials science, molecular environmental science and structural biology at the laboratory.

While the APS maintains the huge X-ray ring itself, collaborators must pay for "beamlines" -- access points through which the powerful X-rays can be guided and used for research. Since the cost of a single beamline is about $7 million and because of its success in raising funds, SER-CAT will build two beamlines at a cost of between $13 million and $15 million.

UNC-CH, N.C. State and Duke each contributed $500,000 to the project for a total of $1.5 million to be spread over the three-year estimated design and construction time for the first SER-CAT beamline. Researchers from UNC-CH's six structural biology groups will conduct projects at the facility on immunotherapy, cancer therapeutics, anti-parasitic drugs, the AIDS virus, basic biochemistry and other topics.

Collins, for example, who also holds appointments in immunology, biochemistry and biophysics, will work on immunotherapeutics.

"I'm trying to design drugs as vaccines for viral infections or as therapeutics for cancer," he said. "This new machine is so much stronger that we will be able to do this work in a tenth of the time it took in the past. It will also allow us to use new techniques we couldn't use before."

Other UNC-CH researchers who will work at APS are Drs. Charles Carter and Hengming Ke of biochemistry, John Sondek of pharmacology, Ann Eaken of medicinal chemistry and Matt Rabindo of chemistry.

Scientists have known for decades that strong X-rays can help decode molecular structures, Collins said. Many SER-CAT researchers view the APS X-ray's ability to reveal and use very small crystals that can't be seen by in-house X-rays as the major reason for building beamlines at Argonne.

Recognition of the importance of this decoding ability has led to new information on the structure of DNA as well as design of new medicines. Because of rapidly advancing technology, the number of structural biologists has grown significantly, tripling in the South over the past five years.
Note: Collins can be reached at 919-966-6869.
Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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