While everyone is familiar with X-rays, CT scans and MRIs as part of clinical care, it takes much more powerful analysis of the causes of disease to propel us toward better drug therapies.
The images taken with a technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) can enable this progress. In fact, the details revealed in these images of proteins can provide insights to develop novel drug therapies for cancer, age-related diseases, diabetes and obesity, neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases and every health concern imaginable.
UT Health San Antonio, South Texas’ research leader, is investing $5 million in cryo-EM technology, entering the hottest realm in structural biology today. It is the region’s first instrument of its type.
Cryo-EM is complementary to existing structural biology technologies at UT Health San Antonio. X-ray crystallography, for example, exposes a protein crystal to X-rays, diffracting the X-ray beam in directions according to the protein’s structure. There is also nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, which demonstrates behavior of an atom nucleus when it is placed in a powerful magnetic field. Experts can infer structure from the behavior they observe through these two highly practiced technologies.
Cryo-EM flash-freezes proteins on thin layers of ice within milliseconds and barrages them with electron beams, generating new, biologically useful information.
“We are essentially molecular photographers,” said Shaun K. Olsen, Ph.D., UT Health San Antonio structural biology expert. “Some people take pictures of buildings. We take pictures of proteins and want to see what they look like in three dimensions.”
Visualizing a protein in all its glory at the subatomic level “is like being able to see a dime on the surface of the moon,” Elizabeth V. Wasmuth, Ph.D., said of the cryo-EM suite.
“Having a cryo-EM system will allow us to observe drug targets that can’t be visualized by the other methods,” Wasmuth said. “I am confident that this tool is going to transform structural biology research in South Texas.”
“UT Health San Antonio is a premier biomedical research enterprise because of its commitment to these types of investments,” said Jennifer Sharpe Potter, Ph.D., M.P.H., the institution’s vice president for research. “This is the latest in a long tradition of conscious, intentional decisions to maintain cutting-edge instruments required to answer questions that will translate science into practice.”
Separate multimillion-dollar awards from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) aided the scientists’ recruitments. Olsen joined UT Health San Antonio from the Medical University of South Carolina, and Wasmuth was recruited from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the Rockefeller University in New York City.
Funding from The University of Texas System Science and Technology Acquisition and Retention (STARs) program supported the researchers in renovating their laboratories and purchasing instrumentation.
Cryo-EM capability could aid the acquisition of other instruments that will raise up science in San Antonio. With a $350 million annual research portfolio, UT Health San Antonio is the region’s largest research institution.
The new cryo-EM system will enhance research across all health disciplines at UT Health San Antonio.
For example, scientists of the university’s Mays Cancer Center will use it to study cancer development and progression. Investigators of the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio will leverage it to study dementia. Faculty of the institution’s Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Disorders will utilize it to study age-related diseases. And, among many other disciplines and applications at UT Health San Antonio, researchers of the Greehey Children’s Cancer Research Institute will deploy it to study childhood cancers.
“This acquisition reflects our commitment to making San Antonio a biomedical hub for the United States and the world,” Potter said. “The types of visualizations and the questions that this technology advances are investments in the long-term improvement of human health.”
Read more about this research and other discoveries aimed at curing diseases at GroundbreakingResearch.org.