02 February 2011

Shooting star in Chemistry to develop lighting-fast protein analysis

Proteins are a bit like keys. By observing the shape of the key you can figure out which lock it will open and observing the shape of a protein allows you to reveal which functions it performs. Today's technique requires the efforts of a small research team for several months to discover the configuration of a just single protein. Therefore, Novo Nordisk has invited a PhD researcher from the Department of Chemistry to join their STAR program in order to develop a highly accelerated method of protein structural analysis.

By Jes Andersen

Novo is supporting PhD Anders Christensen to the tune of DKK 1.3 million in salary for the duration of the research process. And Christensen has high hopes for being able to deliver as he had already embarked on his current approach during the course of his graduate program.

Today we measure the distances and angles between atoms in a protein molecule. It is an incredibly cumbersome method which requires highly trained researchers for each operation. If instead you can take an NMR spectrum of the chemical shifts and you can figure out the structure based on a computational algorithm.

This suggests that computers might be tasked with the tedious jobs. Christensen has already tested the method on a single atom type while completing his chemistry training - with success. He explains, "We took the atom that the traditional method has the hardest time analysing. Regardless, it turned out that my method was markedly better," assures Christensen.

Indeed, Christensen expects that the quantum mechanics-based method will be able to reduce the amount of time for a single protein from several man-months to a few days of computer work.
"It will offer pharmaceutical and biotech firms the opportunity to explore significantly more protein mutations. They will have many more candidates to choose from when developing a new active substance," explains Christensen.


The STAR acronym stands for Novo Nordisk's "Science and Talent Attraction Recruitment" and there is certainly no shortage of hidden talent in Anders Christensen.

"I've combined my chemistry education in a slightly unusual manner. I have taken a lot of quantum mechanics courses, but also a lot about protein structure. In relation to the work with which I am occupied here, it probably also helps that I have been programming computers since I was a boy," smiles the new 'STAR' chemist.