The Secrets of Protein

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

If genes are our bodies’ architectural plans, then proteins are the internal devices that make decisions, send signals and ensure that our metabolism operates properly. The study of proteins in our cells and tissue is known as proteomics, a term coined in 1994 by Marc Wilkins, now professor of systems biology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Proteomics began with a lofty goal: to “figure out what all the proteins are inside cells,” Dr. Wilkins recalls. Two years ago “we could say we had found all the proteins one would expect to find inside a bacteria cell or yeast cell.” Last year, two research groups declared that they had found 85%-90% of the proteins inside the human cell. Another expects to publish a list of all human proteins later this year—a milestone as important as sequencing the human genome.

Proteins are responsible for the basic aspects of metabolism: they convert food into amino acids, sugar or other states that the body can use. Proteins are also the functional molecules inside systems. Like antennae, they sense what’s happening outside the cell, and transmit signals inside the body.

Some proteins are decision makers,” Dr. Wilkins explains. “There are not that many of them in a cell. But there are lots of copies of ‘worker’ proteins. It’s like corporate organization, with executives and workers.”

Scientists have long understood what ‘worker’ proteins do, but for years, “it was hard to get good data on proteins that pass information to each other (known as signal transduction) and transcription factors that decide what proteins are made inside the cell, which have a big influence on what cells are doing. They’re important for the specialization that happens in all cells; regulating a kidney cell is very different from a brain cell,” Dr. Wilkins says.

iStock_000014137699_SmallSignal transduction proteins are the “middle-men” that connect cell receptors on the outside of cells to proteins in the cell nucleus. They sense and integrate information, and decide which proteins need to be made, Dr. Wilkins explains. For example, human growth hormone, or erythropoietin, produced by the kidney, is a protein that tells bone marrow to make more red blood cells.

Recent advances in mass spectrometry, coupled with faster computers, now allow scientists to analyze all the rare proteins inside the cell.

There are 20,000 proteins inside the human body,” Dr. Wilkins points out. “We have good information on what 11,000 to 12,000 of the proteins do. But for a third to half of the human proteins, we have very little idea of what the function is.”

A better understanding of these lesser-known proteins would aid research into many health issues. In particular, proteomics could tell us which signaling and decision-making proteins are associated with cancer, and help in its early detection, by discovering protein biomarkers. We know, for example, that some breast cancer cells make too much HER2 protein, which can then be targeted by biopharmaceutical drugs that include monoclonal antibodies (themselves proteins).

But the process is far from straightforward. “The challenge with biopharmaceuticals is you don’t synthesize them chemically,” Dr. Wilkins says; they’re made by other cells such as bacteria, yeast or mammalian cells. “When you use cells to make proteins… the cell is also making all its usual other proteins. So when you go to purify the drug, the protein of interest is there but with thousands of others,” he says. “Also, you have to make sure all the decorations on the protein are accurate for it to be effective …[or] it can set off a patient’s immune system and have disastrous results.” Proteomics and better instrumentation can resolve these quality-control issues.

Proteomics’ potential extends far beyond a cure for cancer. It’s “a general technology platform, so it can be applied to the analysis of every living thing in biological sciences,” Dr. Wilkins says. Viruses, bacteria, yeasts in bread, wine or beer, enzymes in laundry soap, animal and human food supplements, and more, all involve proteins.

“We are just now starting to identify all the proteins in cells,” Dr. Wilkins says, “and so must now tackle the next challenge: to understand how these interact with each other to form all the hundreds of molecular machines inside the cell, and how these function in the normal cell and change in disease.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

People Power

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


Imagine charging your phone with electricity made from your own body. That day isn’t so far away. New technology is being developed to convert our bodies’ sweat, heat and motion into electricity. Here’s how.

Sweat: Scientists have developed a small, tattoo-like patch that turns lactate, one of about 800 chemicals in perspiration, into electricity.

“We do energy-harvesting from the body, with sweat as a biofuel,” says Joseph Wang, chair of nanoengineering and director of the Center for Wearable Sensors at the University of California at San Diego.

Researchers used the adhesive, stretchable, flexible tattoo to power a digital watch. “When the person started to sweat, we could see that the watch was turning,” Dr. Wang reports.

The biofuel patch uses an enzyme as a biocatalyst. “The tattoo has two printed electrodes with the enzyme. We later did the same thing on textile that’s in contact with the skin,” Dr. Wang says.

The patch generates 100 microwatts per square centimeter—too weak to charge a phone, but enough for a low-power biomedical device such as a glucose sensor or, eventually, a pacemaker. The device could be woven into headbands or underwear to capture sweat. It might even have military applications by obviating the need to carry batteries.

The beauty is, they’re inexpensive,” Dr. Wang says. “They’re printable devices with low-cost fabrication.”

Lactate isn’t the only potential bodily biofuel. Scientists are studying how glucose can power batteries as well as bodies. Researchers at Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France, are working on implantable biofuel cells that would power artificial organs. And scientists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, are developing sugar-powered batteries that can store more energy than in lithium-ion batteries.

Heat: “We waste 60% of our energy through heat,” says Gang Chen, head of the mechanical engineering department and professor of power engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There is interest in recovering this heat and turning it into electricity.”

iStock_000004171296_SmallOne way batteries can convert heat into electricity is by taking advantage of thermodynamic cycles. As temperatures rise, battery voltage decreases. If a battery is charged at a high temperature and then cooled, the voltage increases. “The idea requires you to heat and cool the battery and cycle back and forth,” Dr. Chen explains.

Another method is thermoelectric. It’s possible to generate electricity when one side of a semiconductor is hot and the other cold. Such differentials are everywhere. For example, body temperature is hotter than ambient temperature, Dr. Chen points out, but devices need to be designed to maintain that difference.

The thermoelectric approach is closer to application. A thermoelectric battery can already be used to power a watch, while researchers at Yonsei University and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, both in Seoul, have developed a wearable thermoelectric generator.

Motion: Piezoelectric systems harvest energy from pressure or vibrations caused by walking, driving cars on roads, or machinery operating in factories.

One recent advance is an energy-generating cloth developed at South Korea’s Sungkyunkwan University. Their piezoelectric nanogenerator is flexible and can be folded, rolled and stretched to capture energy from movement. Indeed, researchers at the École de Technologie Supérieure in Montreal, Canada have created a chin strap that captures electricity from chewing.

iStock_000000157491_SmallThen there’s locomotion. “When we walk, we apply light forces to footwear—around 1,000 newtons, or about 1.3 times the weight of a person,” says Tom Krupenkin, president of InStep NanoPower LLC and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Up to 20 watts of energy is dissipated as heat into footwear without being used for anything. If we can capture and utilize a small part of that, it can be useful.”

InStep NanoPower uses a process called reverse electrowetting in which fluids harvest energy and convert it into electricity in an insole. Electronics included in the insole, powered by walking, would allow sensors to track basic data such as steps taken. But more important applications might be possible. By integrating GPS, accelerometers and temperature sensors the insoles could help locate, say, a jogger who has suffered a heart attack; someone buried in the rubble of a collapsed building; or a firefighter lost in a smoke-filled building. The insoles could even extend a phone’s battery life by using Bluetooth communications as a relay to cellular networks.


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Accelerating Market Opportunity in a Global Landscape

By David
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Pharmaceutical and biotech companies strive to deliver the best medicines and therapies to their patients, but are faced with numerous industry challenges including increasing competition, globalization, lower margins and patent expiration. Additionally, these companies also face a greater frequency of regulatory authority interaction and therapeutic innovation, particularly those focused on small target populations.

Consequently, pharmaceutical and biotech organizations often struggle to manage and maintain documentation throughout the development lifecycle. Functional areas such as Quality Assurance, R&D and Regulatory often create and manage their own silos of content that cannot be effectively synchronized. This is especially true when disparate systems are unable to talk to each other.

Pharmaceutical and biotech companies often face unforeseen risks that can reduce the effectiveness and compliance of their systems – especially when facing the challenges of controlling changes across multiple sites in a global enterprise.

Finally, regulatory requirements can challenge the most dedicated and process-driven organizations. With numerous regulatory areas to focus on, and frequent regulation change without notice, problems arise. Without effective management, regulatory hurdles can quickly clog the new product pipeline.

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An Online Quality and Compliance Platform

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Disparate silos of information can be united into one online platform, helping companies digitally share their quality, compliance, and regulatory activities across their global operations. License to Cure helps businesses transition from outdated practices to a connected and transformative environment where companies can collaborate with their supply chain partners and regulatory agencies, both pre- and post-market. This transparency between early clinical activity, through manufacturing, and on to full commercialization is essential to success.

As a web-enabled solution, user interfaces provide easy viewing, access and printing of controlled documents across organizations. Full life cycle management of controlled documents reduces time to search and collect information, and automatically provides an audit trail for full traceability. This interface enables simultaneous collaboration by multiple authors and reviewers, and streamlines the approval process.

Data can be captured, reviewed, processed and approved through an interface that works as a single point of access to compliance content. This helps pharma and biotech companies to integrate their Quality Management Systems (QMS) across their global operations. With secure, audited data sharing, users can access documents and data from anywhere, allowing them to adhere to quality processes and minimize duplication of information.

Designed for the highly-regulated life sciences environment, License to Cure for BioPharma provides end-to-end document and workflow management in alignment with regulatory guidelines. This serves to reduce costs, improve efficiencies and accelerate submission of applications to the appropriate regulatory bodies.

License to Cure for BioPharma provides seamless and continuous data flow to accelerate innovation, enabling enterprise organizations to improve yields, reduce the number of issues and minimize recall occurrence, thereby improving both product quality and quality processes needed to reduce risk.

With an integrated, end-to-end solution, businesses can transform the way they bring innovative therapeutic solutions to patients. To find out more, download the solution brief.

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