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Protein Folding Unraveled

July 5, 2004

Heather Heilman
Michael DeMocker

The Tulane Structural Proteomics Initiative was awarded $200,000 in the second round of the Wall Fund awards, causing non-scientists to scratch their heads and ask, "Structural proteomics--what's that?" Proteomics is the study of proteins, which are the basic building blocks of living bodies.

tulsp04_wall5In the wake of the human genome project and other genome-mapping endeavors, biochemists have increasingly turned their at-tention to the study of protein, since each gene basically directs the formation of a particular protein. Proteins are made of long strings of amino acids that fold into complex (and often quite beautiful) shapes that allow them to perform particular functions. Many diseases are related to proteins folding incorrectly or not at all, including Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis and mad cow disease.

The Wall Fund provided support for five Tulane researchers who were studying protein structure--William Wimley, Samuel Landry and James Nolan of the biochemistry department in the medical school, Thomas Bishop of environmental health sciences at the public health school, and Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, formerly of the chemistry department.

All five were members of the New Orleans Protein Folding Intergroup, which was born out of a collaboration between Landry and Wittung-Stafshede and includes researchers from Louisiana State and Xavier universities in addition to Tulane. "We each used our piece of the Wall Fund award to fill in gaps," said Wimley, who wrote the proposal. "Some of us used it for equipment, others for personnel."

Wimley is studying a protein in the membrane of bacterial cells with the idea of eventually targeting them for vaccine development. He used his portion of the money to hire a graduate assistant to help expand his research, which is primarily funded by the National Institutes of Health.

"The Wall Fund helped all our labs get data and publications that we can now use to get additional funding," he said. "Funding cycles are very slow, but I think we'll see that it made an impact."

Landry was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to study how proteins work together to identify those that are at risk of forming incorrectly, and is awaiting news of funding on a new National Institutes of Health grant. Wimley will apply for a renewal this fall.

One of the original group, Wittung-Stafshede, was recently lured away from Tulane by an offer too generous to refuse from Rice University. Her unused share of the Wall Fund award will go back to the other members of the group. But her departure means that there's no longer a proteomics researcher on the uptown campus. Diane Blake, a professor of ophthalmology at Tulane, has joined the protein folding intergroup.


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