High-tech surveillance

The power of proteomics

Bill Snyder
Published: February, 2007

A montage of molecular images glows with a spectrum of peptides and proteins, their colors assigned to different molecular weights, in sections of a rat brain.  Images like these, which were produced by MALDI imaging mass spectrometry, can reveal the distribution of individual proteins in cells and tissues.
Image courtesy of Malin Andersson, Ph.D., research fellow in the Vanderbilt Mass Spectrometry Research Center
Will fingerprinting cancer lead to its arrest?

That’s the hope of proteomics, the science of proteins.

Researchers are trying to identify patterns of proteins in blood and tissue samples that reflect the presence of diseases like cancer in the body. These patterns, often called “molecular fingerprints,” could serve as biomarkers for early detection.

“We believe that the future of medicine is actually going to depend very heavily on the ability to discover and validate biomarkers in proteomics,” Anna D. Barker, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), said during a news conference in 2006.

By improving early detection, biomarkers could increase the chances for successful treatment and survival, noted Nobel laureate Leland Hartwell, Ph.D., president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

In addition, “they will be useful for managing the cancer process at all stages, from risk assessment to early detection to prognosis to therapeutic response and disease recurrence,” he said.

Currently, however, there is a lack of standardization of techniques used to analyze proteins. As a result, “the overall reliability of the approach is not currently sufficient to apply it directly to clinical research,” says Daniel C. Liebler, Ph.D., director of the Proteomics Laboratory in the Vanderbilt Mass Spectrometry Research Center.

Liebler is heading up one of five teams across the country to standardize proteomic technologies and move them forward. The project, part of the NCI’s Clinical Proteomics Technologies Initiative, was announced during last fall’s news conference.

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