Michigan receives NCRR grant for tomorrow's proteomics technology

October 28, 2003

ANN ARBOR, MI - Whether they work for a university or a corporate laboratory, scientists doing research in the life sciences now have one more reason to come to Michigan.

An $11.9-million, five-year grant from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a branch of the National Institutes of Health, will make Michigan a national leader for research and development on cutting-edge technologies in the fast-moving field of proteomics.

The grant was awarded to Philip Andrews, Ph.D., director of the Michigan Proteome Consortium - a statewide network of scientists and research facilities at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, Michigan State University and Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Mich. The consortium was created in 2001 with a $13.7-million grant from the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor to provide services to industry and academic investigators.

Including university support, a total of more than $28 million has been invested in research facilities, equipment and staff for the Michigan Proteome Consortium - all devoted to helping scientists identify proteins and understand what they do in living organisms.

"Our hope is that this newly awarded research resource will leverage the state's considerable investment in the Michigan Proteome Consortium to create a research center with a national scope and impact," says Douglas M. Sheeley, Sc.D., program director for the National Center for Research Resources. "The consortium has an outstanding track record in proteomics and an impressive team of scientists building an integrated approach to difficult problems involving protein interactions."

"This award shows that the state's investment in infrastructure for the Core Technology Alliance is paying off," says Mike Jandernoa, chair of the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor steering committee. "The ability to attract significant federal research funding reinforces Michigan's efforts to provide the high-tech laboratory facilities required for research and economic development in the life sciences."

"Thanks to financial support from universities, the state of Michigan, and now NCRR, every scientist in Michigan will have access to a state-of-the-art research facility and expert support services that would be out of reach for any single university or even most corporations," says Andrews, a professor of biological chemistry in the U-M Medical School. "It shows what universities and government can do, if they work together."

Proteomics is an important emerging field in the life sciences. While geneticists study the genes in a specific cell or organism, proteomics researchers focus on proteins - millions of complex molecules that do the work of living cells. Unlike genes, which are stored permanently on DNA in the cell's nucleus, proteins are ephemeral. They come and they go - created or destroyed instantly by cells in response to genetic instructions or biochemical signals from other cells or proteins. To understand the function of a gene, scientists must identify the proteins produced when that specific gene is active and figure out what those proteins do in the cell.

"Proteomics is important to researchers in many specialties, but especially in biomedical research," Andrews says. "Proteins can be used as biomarkers to detect the earliest stages of diseases like cancer or diabetes. Genetic differences between people are reflected in the different mix of proteins in their cells. Proteins show how cells respond to pathogens or chemicals, and how cells change as they age. Proteins also serve as traffic cops directing complex biochemical signaling pathways in the body."

Detecting trace amounts of a protein, which may exist in cells only for fractions of a second, requires extremely sensitive and expensive equipment to rapidly separate, analyze and identify all protein components in a cell sample. This generates massive amounts of data, which must be processed and stored in powerful, high-speed computers. And, just to keep things interesting, the technology is moving so fast, it is usually outdated within two to three years.

"This additional funding from the National Center for Research Resources will make it possible for the Consortium to expand its R&D program in emerging proteomics technologies," Andrews says. "For proteomics to reach its full potential, we need to develop more sensitive techniques for use with smaller tissue specimens, new mapping technologies, and improved software and computational tools."

Back in 1998, when the field of proteomics was in its infancy, Andrews received a $750,000 pilot grant from the U-M Medical School to create the first U-M proteomics center. "The initial investment by the Medical School allowed us to build the basic infrastructure we needed to apply for funds from the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor," Andrews says. "The state funding played a critical role in obtaining the NCRR grant, greatly increasing the competitiveness of the Michigan application."

"It's always gratifying to see positive results from an investment in a promising new field," says Allen S. Lichter, M.D., the Newman Family Professor of Radiation Oncology and dean of the U-M Medical School. "But without the foresight and determination of many people in the Medical School and the university, none of this would be possible. Special recognition should go to Irwin J. Goldstein, Ph.D., professor emeritus of biological chemistry, who was the Medical School's associate dean for research in 1998, and championed the initial proposal."

"Thanks also to Gilbert S. Omenn, M.D., Ph.D., now a professor of internal medicine and human genetics in the Medical School, who was a strong advocate for the importance of proteomics during his tenure as the U-M's executive vice president for medical affairs," says Lichter.

In addition to the Medical School, financial and administrative support from the U-M Provost's Office and the Office of the Vice President for Research were crucial to the center's development, according to Andrews. The Provost's Office contributed $850,000 for extensive renovations and required utility upgrades of the proteomics laboratory on the U-M campus. Similar investments were made by Proteome Consortium partners Wayne State University, Michigan State University and Van Andel Research Institute to develop specialized laboratories at their institutions.

"The Michigan Proteome Consortium, one of five MLSC-funded core facilities, is part of an unprecedented effort to pull Michigan's leading research institutions together to collaborate and share very advanced laboratory facilities, says Fawwaz Ulaby, Ph.D., U-M's vice president for research. "It is a perfect example of how universities are helping create a thriving life sciences economy in Michigan."

University of Michigan Health System

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