As the Human Proteome Organization moves into its sixth year, the incoming president would like to see the organization consolidate its efforts, ensure it has its priorities right, and try not to be everything to everybody.
In less than a month Rolf Apweiler will take over HUPO’s leadership, becoming the third president in the organization’s history, following Samir Hanash, HUPO’s inaugural leader, and John Bergeron.
In doing so, Apweiler takes charge during a challenging time for the proteomics field. Not quite nascent but not yet mature, the discipline has lost some of the luster that comes when something new turns out to have unrealistic expectations.
As Apweiler takes HUPO’s reigns, much about the proteome of any living creature remains a mystery. And despite the research that’s been done over the past few years, it can be argued that researchers today are only marginally closer to deciphering a proteome than they were two years ago.
As the main voice for the proteomic community, HUPO has numerous irons in the fire, coordinating a wide array of research projects studying the heart, blood, brain, and liver proteomes, among others. It has also served as the field’s advocate to funding agencies, as a liaison between the scientific community and industry, and as a networking organization for researchers.
With so many duties on his plate, Apweiler said that the organization will need to be careful not to spread itself too thin by trying to be everything to everybody in the proteomics field.
“You have only a limited capacity in what people can bring in their spare time. And this limitation makes it important that you get your priorities right,” Apweiler said in an interview with ProteoMonitor thisweek. “We can’t do everything.
“It’s quite clear that some areas are advancing quicker and have a lot more steam behind [them] than others. You always have to work with the clay you have. … So there are certain areas where we can move quicker and there are other areas where we need to wait until we have a bit of additional power,” Apweiler said.
“I think my agenda for the next two years is fairly modest. I want to make this a steady road, that we carry on being on a good path instead of being incredibly ambitious [trying] to do this and that [only to] lose track of consolidating what we are already doing quite well.”
Among his most important responsibilities as head of HUPO, he said, is to maintain its position as the voice of proteomic scientists.
“It may sound quite modest, but I think it’s a big challenge to establish HUPO firmly as the international scientific organization representing scientists working in proteomics worldwide,” Apweiler said. “It has reached already this stage, but you can’t let go then. You need to really establish visibility for the future.”
Of particular importance, he said, is the role that HUPO can play in influencing the flow of government funds to researchers. The organization has had discussions with the National Institutes of Health, as well as various European government agencies, about the work of proteomic researchers and the promise that the field poses and the challenges it faces. That will continue under Apweiler’s leadership, he said.
“One thing of every scientific organization [is] it tries to make the voices of [its] members [heard] at political levels at funding agencies — to make them aware of opportunities and technologies that proteomics has,” Apweiler said. He added that it’s equally crucial to receive input from government agencies about what they believe “are important obstacles right now for using proteomics as a technology.”
One roadblock that has been discussed at length at various proteomic conferences, including HUPO’s World Congress in Long Beach a month ago, is the lack of technological breakthroughs in proteomic instruments and tools.
Acknowledging that, HUPO is in the midst of putting together an industry advisory board to work with vendors to improve the technology [See PM 11/02/06].
The creation of the board, which will have its first meeting in March to lay its foundation, comes as some in the research community say that instrument makers are ignoring their needs and concerns, while counterparts in industry say that at least part of the problems encountered by researchers is the result of poor workflows and bad science.
“You have only a limited capacity in what people can bring in their spare time. And this limitation makes it important that you get your priorities right. We can’t do everything.”
Regardless of who may be right or wrong, Apweiler said, it would behoove both sides to see each other as partners rather than as adversaries.
“The industry working in proteomics is as much a part of the proteomics community as researchers,” he said. “They are a part of the picture. And we need to hear what they see as opportunities.
“At some stage, there will be decisions [made about] how money will be distributed in research, and, of course, money is only spent on proteomics as a technology and on experiments using proteomics as the tools if they are a good investment for the money,” he said.
Among the many initiatives being undertaken by HUPO, two were singled out by Apweiler — the Proteomics Standards Initiative, which he used to chair, and the Human Antibody Initiative.
The lack of reporting standards is a longstanding concern in the proteomics field and one that HUPO has been addressing for some time. [See PM 09/28/06].
“That is something that benefits everyone. There was a lot of interest by scientists all over the world to work on that,” Apweiler said. The project is being headed by Henning Hermjakob, Ruedi Aebersold, and Randy Julian.
Of the antibody project, Apweiler said, “I think that that is something where we can really do a lot of good for a lot of people by having shared resources.” That initiative is being spearheaded by Mathias Uhlen.
Apweiler pointed to such projects as particular strengths of HUPO because of its ability to coordinate scientists to work on them, almost completely on a voluntary basis and with no funding. In the case of the standards initiative, he said, work had been going on for years before the European Commission finally provided funding this past October to one of the many groups working on the project.
But even with such projects, the role of HUPO is ultimately limited to being a sort of set-up man.
“This must be run by individual scientists,” he said. “Organizations can only help foster the ideas and bring them out into the open for discussion.”