Membrane protein kit may lead to better targeted drugs

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Posted August 30, 2013

Many pharmaceuticals may soon become better targeted and more effective with the help of new technology developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

This technology, the Rhodobacter Membrane Protein Expression System, received one of this year’s R&D 100 Awards. These prestigious awards, known as “the Oscars of Innovation,” recognize the most important scientific and technological breakthroughs of the year. The winning invention, developed by Argonne biologists Philip Laible and Deborah Hanson, enables its users to easily generate large amounts of membrane proteins.

Membrane proteins are proteins embedded into the surfaces of cells that carry out vital processes necessary to the cells’ survival. They act as gatekeepers, controlling which drugs can access the cell. These proteins can make or break a drug, and are so important in disease that more than half of all new drugs in development target membrane proteins.

For researchers to design better targeted drugs, they need to know the structure and functional characteristics of these membrane proteins. Determining these characteristics is difficult, because researchers need large amounts of membrane protein to characterize their functions and map their structures, and sources are scarce.

Few prior technologies were able to produce membrane proteins in large amounts, in part because membrane proteins are finicky and difficult to work with. They cannot function in water, so the proteins must be protected by a layer of membrane almost immediately after they are generated inside the cell. Otherwise, they will degrade from exposure to an incompatible environment.


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