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Austrian Proteomics Platform Seeks to Join World Community with Small Funds, Big Effort

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Toting a small piggy bank but plenty of determination, the one-year-old Austrian Proteomics Platform is positioning itself to join the international proteomics community and to lure away some of its promising young scientists, according to APP leader Lukas Huber, a professor at the Institute for Anatomy, Histology, and Embryology in Innsbruck, Austria.

With the organization’s first international symposium — set to feature the likes of John Yates, Sam Hanash, and Denis Hochstrasser — scheduled for late January, Huber hopes to both learn from the best and to prove to the world that small countries and small budgets can still do good science.

The APP was born last year as a branch of the Austrian Genome Research Program, which the Aus-trian government established in 2001 to promote genomics in the country. But with only €30 million ($36.7 million) set aside for Gen-Au for the first three years — €2 million to €3 million of which will go to the APP — the program’s capabilities are limited. “From the beginning it was clear to us that with the funding we can generate here, we will not be able to compete with the larger proteomics centers in the world,” Huber said. “We can’t be competitive when it comes to brute force approaches where we need 30 mass spectrometers running day and night and hundreds of 2D gels — we don’t have the resources for that.”

Instead, Huber is taking a three-pronged approach: First, come up with a project that plays upon the strengths that Austrian protein scientists already have — specifi-cally, the ability to analyze post-translational modifications — and add a proteomics element to the traditional techniques with which the scientists are already familiar. Next, initiate active recruitment and scientist exchange programs inside and outside of Austria to draw the best minds to the APP and educate the scientists the group already has, while establishing deals with pharma and instrument companies to supplement the program’s resources. Third, collaborate with existing international proteomics efforts to fill in the gaps and further boost capabilities in Austria.

Huber and his compatriots have already taken the first two steps. Five groups in three Austrian cities — Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna — are working on proteomics projects, mostly looking at post-translational modifications in the context of disease. Huber’s group in Innsbruck, for example, is developing technologies for looking at phosphorylation in cancer-related cascades, concentrating on improving sample prep techniques. Another group in Graz is looking at glycosylation in inflammation processes. A third group, in Vienna, is working on histone acetylation and methylation. Meanwhile, a group at the Univer-sity of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna is using classical proteomics techniques to look at disease proteomes of various animals. Most of the groups have collaborations already, both with pharma (Huber is collaborating with Boehringer Ingelheim), and with mass spec and chromatography vendors (the Vienna veterinary group is collaborating with Bruker Biosciences, Waters, and “more or less all the people who are leading in the field”). In addition, Huber is “leaving the platform open” for new project ideas that Austrian scientists returning from exchange programs or new international recruits might bring. So far, Huber said, the results have been promising. “We think we have a window of opportunity to be competitive, and that means success for us — it’s not like HUPO with millions of antibodies on chips. We have to first reach the levels where others are and develop from there,” he said.

HUPO’s Hanash is a featured speaker at January’s symposium, and Huber said that he hopes the APP will collaborate with HUPO as part of the third prong of his plan. But he was also careful to differentiate his idea of how to best do proteomics from HUPO’s approach. “I’m a bit critical of HUPO — what the aims are and which direction it’s going in,” Huber said. Attempting to study as dynamic and complex a system as a whole proteome, even just at the cellular level, “is something like a Sisyphus project,” he said. “We roll the stone up the hill and then it comes right back down.” Huber thinks that his approach of picking particular, focused projects and using proteomic techniques to solve them is a more realistic and productive tactic. “This is where the technology is strong at the moment,” he said.

Huber hopes that the January conference will show off that strength while opening the door to making Austria a significant player in the larger proteomics community. The goal of the conference “is to have the best people in the world together in a small room and small format … to discuss opportunities for our country, to give our researchers the opportunities to meet these people and hear about the latest developments, but also to present our ideas and concepts and to get feedback,” he said. Huber added that he hoped to recreate in Austrian labs the “international spirit” he felt during his time as a cell biologist at EMBL by attracting young talents from other European countries. The conference could be a step in that direction, he said.

The First Symposium of the Austrian Proteomics Platform will be held in Seefeld, Austria from Jan. 26-29.

— KAM