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NIH to Announce Winners of Protein Structure Grants

NEW YORK, Sept 20 – The U.S. National Institutes of Health said Wednesday it would announce within a few days the academic and corporate winners of its $150 million Protein Structure Initiative, a program designed to help ramp up efforts to uncover protein configurations.

“In 50 years we’ve produced roughly 1,000 unique structures,” the initiative’s director, John Norvell, told GenomeWeb. “It’s not going real fast.”

Protein structures are difficult, time consuming, and expensive to resolve. Using current technologies, it can cost upwards of $100,000 to reveal the structure of a single protein.

To help ease the burden, the NIH will award up to six recipients out of 11 applicants $4.5 million a year for large-scale high-throughput protein structure efforts.

“The goal of each of these centers is to increase the rate at which structures can be done,” said Novell. “We hope at the end of the five year grant period each one them will be solving somewhere between 100 an 200 structures a year.”

The results will be housed in the public Protein Data Bank.

Researchers believe that by understanding a protein’s configuration they can better understand the influence a faulty structure has on disease.

Norvell said the initiative would also pour an annual $5 million to $10 million into ongoing programs developing improved methods and technologies for more efficient protein structure analysis. Many complex, multi-domain, and membrane-embedded proteins are still unsolvable, and it could take many decades to complete the library of protein structures.

Applicants for the grants were selected in part based on whether or not they had a complete structural genomics lab. Norvell said the winners must have a wet lab to clone, express, purify, crystallize, and label the target proteins, computational resources to choose protein data sets and organize the proteins by families, industrial-scale X-ray crystallography or NMR spectroscopy capabilities, and a bioinformatics department to manage data and make them available to the public.

“They have to have the whole thing,” he said.

The NIH’s initiative underscores the growing number of public and private efforts to uncover protein structures. The UK’s Wellcome Trust and a consortium of more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies are also planning to fund the expansion of public protein databases.

And a half dozen start-ups base their business plans on solving protein structures. On Wednesday one of these companies, Structural Genomix of San Diego, said it closed a $45 million private equity financing round, bringing the amount of money the company has raised this year to $77 million.

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