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New nanoparticles could revolutionise therapeutic drug discovery

25 June 2009

A revolutionary new protein stabilisation technique has been developed by scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which could lead to 30 per cent more proteins being available as potential targets for drug development - opening up exciting possibilities in drug discovery.

Understanding the structure of proteins is a vital first step in developing new drugs, but to date, drug development has been slowed because due to their instability, proteins are difficult to work with in lab conditions. However, using nanoparticles, scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Warwick have found a way to preserve membrane proteins intact, enabling detailed analysis of their structure and molecular functions.

These new findings, which have just been published online in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, will give scientists access to previously ignored proteins deemed too unstable to work with.

Professor Michael Overduin, from the University of Birmingham, who led the study, explained: "We have shown how a polymer can wrap around and preserve membrane proteins intact in stable nanoparticles. Membrane proteins are the most valuable but technically challenging targets for drug discovery. Finding a gentle solution that preserves their structure and activity, yet is robust enough for experimental interrogation, has eluded scientists for decades, but is now available."

Using a polymer, containing suitable phospholipids - styrene maleic acid lipid particles (SMALPs), the researchers solubilised a pair of membrane proteins. They found that not only did the proteins maintain their folded structure, binding and enzyme activities in the SMALPs, but also that using the nanoparticles allowed them to be used simply and rapidly, for virtually any laboratory analysis.

Advantages of SMALPs over traditional ways to solubilise proteins such as detergents include enhanced stability, activity and spectral quality of the protein membranes.

Dr Tim Dafforn who jointly ran the study, said: "In the past, studies have concentrated largely on soluble proteins as membrane proteins are so difficult to make. However, the discovery of the SMALPs removes this barrier and opens up access to membrane proteins - this has exciting clinical implications as it may enable drug discovery on receptors that are currently too difficult to produce or to study by current methods."

Commenting on the findings, BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Doug Kell, said: "The attrition rate in developing new drugs is phenomenal. Only a tiny fraction make it into the clinic to benefit patients. Research such as this that can help to understand the chemical biology of membrane proteins and thereby increase the number of potential targets will mean a larger pipeline for scientists to develop new drugs from and, ultimately more, better drugs for patients. Fundamental bioscience working in coordination with medical research is vital to deliver new, effective drugs."

To read the paper in full, visit: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja810046q

ENDS

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Anna Mitchell, University of Birmingham

tel: 0121 414 6029

Peter Dunn, University of Warwick

tel: 024 7652 3708

Contact

Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382