When a coalition of US and European scientists published the first draft of the human genome in Nature last year, the announcement left scientists elsewhere in the world feeling slightly left out. But in the last year, with proteomics taking the reins as the world’s biotech favorite, researchers on other continents — particularly in the Far East — have begun to assert themselves.
At the moment, nowhere is this more apparent than in Korea. Although the country’s R&D spending as a whole is small by Western standards, Korea is set to boost its proteomics research activities later this year with a $70 million initiative, just one part of the country’s 21st Century Frontier Science Program.
But that’s not to say Korea’s most recent foray into proteomics is the country’s first. With at least 40 research groups and 15 companies already involved in proteomics, the new initiative will further expand a burgeoning Korean biotech sector. Scheduled for launch in July, the project will help Korea “spread proteomics activities in an organized manner,” said Young Ki Paik, director of the Yonsei Proteome Research Center, and president of the Korean Human Proteome Organization.
Thus far, many of Korea’s ongoing proteomics projects have relied on funds originally earmarked for medical biotechnology and genomics, he said. The new proteomics initiative will mean dedicated annual funding from the Korean government of $7 million each year for the next 10 years.
Korea’s 21st Century Frontier Science Program, launched three years ago, is intended to help the country attain world-class competitiveness in selected areas of science and technology. It already supports a program in genomics for which the Korean government has earmarked an annual $10 million over the next decade.
The new proteomics initiative will also facilitate a human liver proteome project, proposed by Young at a two-day scientific meeting of the Asia-Oceania Human Proteome Organization in Korea in late March. The project, aimed at identifying all the proteins found in human liver tissue, will involve academic and industrial research groups distributed across Australia, China, Japan, and Korea, and will be patterned along the lines of a public/private project currently underway in Germany to map the proteome of the human brain, Young told ProteoMonitor.
In addition to studying the proteins in liver, Korean researchers have also delved into other applications, and the March Asia-Oceania meeting provided a glimpse of the ongoing activities as well as future plans of Korea’s growing band of proteomics scientists.
At the meeting, Korean researchers presented their work studying samples of tissue such as human alveolar macrophages from asthma patients, cerebral cortex from patients with epilepsy, and stomach and liver cells from patients with gastric and hepatocellular carcinoma. “The quest is for novel biomarkers for early diagnosis and prognosis prediction,” says Yoo Yung Joon, associate professor of life sciences at the Kwangju Institute of Science and Technology, and scientific chairman of the Asia-Oceania meeting.
Young and his colleagues at the Yonsei Proteome Center believe they’ve already identified a candidate biomarker that may aid in the prognosis of hepatocellular carcinoma: isoforms of the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase.
Korean companies are also seeking biomarkers through collaborative projects with academic centers. In one example, researchers at EyeGen, a Korean biotechnology company based in Seoul and Yonsei University College of Medicine are jointly studying the proteomics of proliferative diabetic retinopathy.
Through comparative analysis using intraocular fluid, the EyeGen-Yonsei team has identified differentially expressed proteins — including a pigment epithelium-derived factor. The researchers are now trying to explore disease mechanisms in a bid to find diagnostic markers.
Korean companies — giant conglomerates as well as startups — are also investing in proteomics. “Private investments in proteomics remain undisclosed, but the number of proteomics companies is growing,” said Moon Hi Han, chairman of the Korean Bioventure Association.
Among the giants, Samsung, LG, and SK Corp. have demonstrated interest in the field by creating new “speciality” companies, setting up research centers, or investing in other startup ventures. Moon himself is the chief executive officer of Proteogen, a Korean proteomics company kickstarted two years ago with $1 million private and venture funding. Proteogen has developed a protein chip for antigen-antibody reactions, calling it the world’s most sensitive protein detection system.
Proteogen’s protein chip uses ProLinker, a proprietary organic bi-functional molecule with one side that attaches itself to the solid matrix, and the other binding tightly to the protein. “No further chemistry is involved, no intermediates,” said Moon. The chip should have applications in the search for new protein biomarkers, drug screening, as well as protein expression profile studies, Moon said.
The company is now seeking fresh investments. “Our target is $2 million,” said Moon. With the money, Proteogen plans to set up an application-oriented research branch in San Diego.