LONG BEACH, Calif. — In a move to address technological barriers some say are holding back advancement in proteomic research, the Human Proteome Organization has launched an initiative to collaborate with proteomic businesses to improve their tools and instruments.
HUPO’s plan, disclosed this week during its World Congress, was largely unnoticed by the 1,700 attendees of the conference. But as researchers lament the shortcomings of technology, and leaders in the field sound the call for improvements in instruments, the initiative could provide a push to the field.
The goal of the plan, to be carried out by a newly formed HUPO group called the Industry Advisory Board, is straightforward: to improve the technology available for proteomic research.
“We need the manufacturers to help out,” said Jan van Oostrum, a vice president at HUPO who is spearheading the effort to create the IAB.
The initiative stems from a meeting held in July in Montreal during which HUPO asked 15 companies, including GE Healthcare, Applied Biosystems, and Waters, about their interest in working with the organization to look at ways to address technological hurdles.
Guenther Thesseling, marketing director for GE Healthcare, said that HUPO has been exploring the idea of such an effort for several years — in fact, since Sam Hanash was HUPO president and Thesseling spoke with him about such an initiative.
Because HUPO’s board approved the initiative as recently as Saturday, many details about the IAB are still to be finalized, including who will be part of the effort and how it will go about accomplishing its goals.
In March, van Oostrum, Thesseling, and others will meet in Cambridge, UK, to lay the foundation for the IAB.
HUPO plans to initially target companies with large segments of their businesses devoted to proteomics, van Oostrum said. Though at his day job he serves as executive director of Genome and Proteome Sciences at Novartis, he said that big pharma would not be initially recruited, though they will not be turned away if they want to participate.
In particular, he said, pharma can provide input on harmonization and standardization efforts that have been identified as major initial goals of the IAB. Along those lines, HUPO has several efforts underway, including its Proteomics Standards Initiatives working groups.
According to Thesseling, the IAB will be looking to create minimum technical requirements for both vendors and academic labs. These include standards for things such as laboratory operational procedures and how experiments are designed, as well as standards for tools and instruments.
“We believe that by introducing these standards, the biological findings become more reliable, the value of the biological findings increase,” ultimately leading to the discovery and development of new drugs, Thesseling said.
HUPO’s efforts come as researchers increasingly express frustration about the limitations of proteomics technology, and leaders in the field are calling for the industry to speed up technological advances.
On Monday during remarks officially opening the World Congress, Anna Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute, said that though technology has been continually evolving and improving, the pace of development “has not picked up yet” to where researchers need it to be.
In addition to a lack of sensitivity that prevents researchers from unraveling the complexity of the human proteome, current technology is too expensive for clinical purposes, she said. To push the science further, she continued, vendors need to ramp up their efforts at building newer and better equipment.
Tim Riley, vice president of proteomic business development for Waters, said that the company is aware of the frustrations of the research community and that Waters and other equipment manufacturers have been aggressive in their R&D efforts to bring instruments with expanding capabilities to market. Researchers, however, have not always been receptive to them.
“We need the manufacturers to help out.”
For example, he said, while several companies, including Waters, have multiple high-resolution mass spectrometry systems on the market, many scientists are still using low-resolution mass spectrometers because they’re cheaper and easier to use.
“The proteomic community has underestimated the complexity of samples,” he said, and is only now “realizing that liquid chromatography and low-resolution mass specs produce very high error rates.”
Riley added that bad protocols and methods in the laboratory, and not poor technology, might be hindering proteomic research.
“I do believe that the technology may not be being used as well as it should be,” he said.
In an e-mail message, David Hicks, senior director of proteomics at ABI, said that NCI is spearheading other similar efforts, suggesting the IAB may be redundant. For instance, the NCI last year started its Clinical Proteomic Technologies Initiative for Cancer, a 5-year, $104-million program to assess the use of proteomic tools and data resources for cancer research
"Applied Biosystems is working both [with] the NCI Proteomics group and with many of the specific groups that have been awarded some of the initial grants,” Hicks said. “Our technologies of TOF/TOF, iTRAQ, QTRAP, Midas MRMs and Qg TOF are all included in some way in the initiative. Our research and applications group will be interfacing with and supporting this effort."
Thesseling, however, noted that the NCI is a US entity, and that improving proteomic tools and instruments is an international responsibility.
In addition to dealing with the technology issue, the IAB will be an opportunity to bring commercial proteomic players into HUPO’s fold in a way that so far has been impossible because of the organization’s structure, van Oostrum said. This new initiative will provide an entry point for vendors to provide input in all of HUPO’s programs, he added.
Companies interested in participating in the initiative should contact Wehbeh Bargachie, director of operations for HUPO, at [email protected].