Molecular fingerprints

The search for individualized medicine

Bill Snyder
Published: February, 2003

Handful of proteins. See “Proteomics – a new language
Photo illustration by Dean Dixon
Proteomics—the science of proteins—is opening up a new world of discovery and understanding of diseases as diverse as cancer and dementia. Using a variety of rapidly developing technologies, and knowledge gleaned, in part, from the successful effort to sequence the human genome, researchers the world over are developing new drugs and diagnostic tests based on proteins that are key to health as well as disease.

One of those methods, called “molecular fingerprinting,” attempts to identify patterns of proteins in the blood and tissues that can be used to detect diseases like cancer much earlier and monitor therapy much better than is now possible. This is the story of some of the research—and the essential involvement of a patient—that are helping to make that hope a reality.

Proteomics (pronounced “pro-tee-ohm-ics”) represents a growing understanding of the power of proteins to determine health and disease. These are not the proteins found in steak or peanut butter. They’re already in your body, making up the walls of your cells and tissues, transmitting electrical signals in your brain, and carrying out a host of other genetic instructions that are essential for life.

When they go wrong—perhaps because they’re mutated by a genetic error or overproduced—proteins can cause a wide range of problems, from heart attacks to Alzheimer’s disease.

Thanks to the technological revolutions of the past quarter century that enabled scientists to sequence the human genome and put vast amounts of computing power on a chip, the previously unseen world of proteins is being revealed. That knowledge is fanning the flames of a new revolution—one in which diseases may be diagnosed earlier, treated much more effectively and ultimately stopped in their tracks.

One of the first clinical applications of proteomics is the early diagnosis of cancer.

Scientists around the world are trying to define “molecular fingerprints” of various cancers—unique patterns of proteins that may signal the presence of tiny tumors not yet detectable by X-rays. The information could help doctors make an earlier diagnosis and determine in advance which treatment will be most effective. It also may lead to the development of new drugs that can—like precision bombs—knock out various steps in the cascade of events leading to malignancy, and without harming normal tissue.

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 > All

View Related Article: Challenges ahead