Calgary, AB – February 12, 2004 – Three researchers from diverse fields have joined forces to develop next-generation technology for better understanding the important roles that proteins play in diseases such as cancer.
The study’s goal is to develop a new method for obtaining a clearer view of a cell and how the even-smaller proteins within a cell behave and interact with one another. “This information is crucial to understanding the fundamental aspects of diseases like cancer,” says Dr David Cramb, a University of Calgary chemist who is working on the project with colleague cancer biologist Dr Susan Lees-Miller and University of Toronto quantum dots expert Dr Greg Scholes.
The research team is developing a new technology called fluorescence cross-correlation spectroscopy (or XCS) to allow the simultaneous observation of three different types of proteins within a cell. Current methods only allow researchers to see a single type of protein in its native environment.
“One of the long-term goals of the study is that we hope the new technology will contribute to the diagnosis and treatment of disease on an individual basis,” says Dr Cramb. For example, a potential application of XCS would allow oncologists to test various treatments or drugs on tissue samples from individual cancer patients. With a better view of protein activity, the oncologists could identify and personalize the most effective treatment for each cancer patient.
Overall, XCS would provide a boon to the study of proteomics. For example, Dr Lees-Miller, the Engineered Air chair in cancer research, is studying how cells recognize and repair radiation-damaged DNA. “In these types of processes there are likely multiple proteins that come into play. So, one of the current challenges is observing this complex process happening in a live cell in real time,” says Dr Cramb, adding current imaging methods, such as electron microscopy or fluorescent microscopy, simply can’t do this job well enough.
The team’s new idea for studying proteins was hatched in part by the emerging use of quantum dots in the biological sciences. These nanoscale particles can ‘light up’ biological entities in a range of sharp colours. Made from semiconductor materials, quantum dots are more durable, visible and easily manipulated than chemical-based dyes that are currently being used.
“Our novel approach is to tag the proteins of interest with fluorescent quantum dots and use XCS to monitor the interactions between the proteins, since XCS provides a signal only when the proteins are connected to each other,” says Dr Cramb.
The trio’s innovative project is fuelled by a four-year, $400,000 grant from NSERC. The funding is part of NSERC’s accelerator grants for exceptional new opportunities initiative, which supports researchers with outstanding new ideas that have the potential for major breakthroughs.
Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca sees potential in the new technology and is currently funding a parallel study in Dr Cramb’s lab.