A more powerful mass spectrometer developed by EU-funded researchers could potentially lead to better treatments for patients with degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In recent years, mapping the human genome has led to unparalleled insight into genes – the body's blueprint.
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However, proteins, the body’s main building blocks, also play a key role in whether you're sick or healthy. In this sense proteomics – the study of proteins – is at least as important as genomics, especially since drugs work on proteins and not on genes.
Against this backdrop, a key challenge in healthcare research today revolves around advancing the field of proteomics, which in simple terms is the analysis of groups of proteins.
The EU-funded project PROSPECTS has contributed by further developing a key tool for proteomics researchers – an improved mass spectrometer which the team says has taken research to new levels. The tool is able to identify protein types by sorting their gaseous ions by mass using electric fields.
“Previously we were able to identify about half of the proteins in a given cell, but the new equipment enables us to identify almost all the proteins,” says project coordinator Dr Matthias Mann, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Germany.
By using the more powerful spectrometer researchers can now document virtually all proteome processes that could lead to a specific disease. The spectrometer is produced under the trade name “Q Exactive” by industrial partner Thermo Fisher Scientific.
"You can study proteins from different angles, such as the technology required to examine proteins, and in which context we use proteomics, as well as protein coding," says Mann. "We use proteome techniques to see what's wrong with the proteomes and why they don’t function correctly in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's."
Although the project’s main goal was technical – documenting proteomes in cells much more accurately – its long-term implications are very promising, says Dr Mann.
"Understanding the proteins in a disease more accurately can pave the way for better diagnostics and eventually a more effective cure," says Mann. "Such technology can enable us to distinguish, for example, one group of cancer patients from another, rendering diagnostic applications in a clinical environment much more powerful."
Ultimately, a more accurate quantification of thousands of proteins could redefine diagnosis and therapy for many diseases, from cancer to Huntington's. And the project is also interesting commercially, with new equipment already on the market. This is positioning Europe as a pioneer in the field.
PROSPECTS brought together a multidisciplinary team of top researchers from academia and industry.
"The funding enabled partners and experts from very different scientific communities to collaborate under this multidimensional project and create outstanding synergies, which wouldn't have happened if left to their own devices," says Mann.
Even now, beyond the project's completion, some members of the consortium are still working together, he notes.