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$1.2 Million Grant to CU-Boulder Team Supports Promising Cellular Research

Proteins of all sizes and shapes do most of the work in living cells. The proteins in our cells may be tiny keys to unlocking mysteries about how our bodies react to disease, food and the world. But first we must learn more about these tiny protein keys.

Scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder may get a step closer to identifying all proteins present in a single cell type, thanks to a $1.2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The grant could better enable researchers to understand the complex changes within a cell that are triggered by disease, food or other means — which could accelerate the development of targeted therapies for cancer, heart disease and other diseases.

“We want to learn what causes changes in cells: for example, how a cancer cell alters cellular proteins, making them different from proteins in a normal cell,” said Natalie Ahn, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at CU-Boulder and one of eight project collaborators whose collective expertise spans biology, chemistry, mathematics, computational sciences and engineering.

“Some cancers are defined by the elevation of particular proteins and may be treated successfully by therapies which target these proteins.” Ahn said. “Our goal is to analyze proteins in cells and their chemical properties, and identify those that change in cancer.”

Defining the complete composition of cells is a new scientific and medical frontier, and technologies to investigate this problem at a molecular level are evolving rapidly. Mass spectrometry has emerged as a powerful technology for monitoring proteins within complex samples, enabling the detection of changes in protein chemistries that cannot otherwise be observed. However, no study has achieved complete identification of proteins in any cell type, tissue or fluid.

“We need new strategies to completely define the molecules that underlie cell regulation, map proteins that can be used to detect diseases and determine how well patients respond to therapy,” she said.

CU-Boulder investigators in 1993 were among the first to apply mass spectrometry to characterize proteins. In 1997 they developed one of the first programs in the nation to provide hands-on training in biomolecular mass spectrometry for graduate and undergraduate students.

Based on this scientific work, the W.M. Keck Foundation awarded CU-Boulder researchers the new grant. The CU team will use part of the grant money to purchase a new, state-of-the-art, high-resolution mass spectrometry system.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Keck Foundation’s grantmaking is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering. The foundation also maintains a program to support undergraduate science and humanities education, and a Southern California grant program that provides support in the areas of health care, civic and community services, education and the arts, with a special emphasis on children.