Proteomics researchers learn a tremendous amount about disease by measuring every single protein in a group of unhealthy cells, but they need a faster way to sort the molecules before analyzing them. Tiny spheres, made from silicon dioxide, could solve the problem.
“In order to study the proteome, we need to separate the individual proteins from one another for analysis,” said Douglas Malkin, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona. “Our materials self-assemble to form crystals that can quickly isolate each protein out by their size or hydrophobicity.”
He and his adviser, chemist Mary Wirth, pack the small spheres into capillary tubes that feed into a nanospray mass spectrometer. When they squirt a crude mixture of proteins through that little pipe, each of them will come out the other side at a different time. As they pop out the other end, the machine will measure them.
“We are doing liquid chromatography,” said Malkin. “We’re just doing it on the nanoscale.”
Malkin presented his work today at the American Chemical Society meeting in Las Vegas. He said that the new tool could help scientists discover new biomarkers — molecules that indicate whether someone has a disease like cancer or diabetes.
Once researchers have identified new signposts of an illness, they can make blood tests that doctors will use to give their patients an early warning.
Before that can happen, Malkin and Wirth must overcome some problems with their own technology. Because their nanoparticle-packed columns are so narrow, it takes a tremendous amount of pressure to push a brew of proteins through them.
Malkin is sure that his colleagues will rise to the challenge. Over time, the pace of protein separation will catch up to the incredible speed of high-end analyzers. When that happens, biotech research will shift into a higher gear.