Ireland may not be the first country that comes to mind when proteomics research is discussed, but this might soon change. On May 1, the Irish government invested €42 million ($48.2 million) to establish three CSETs or Centers for Science, Engineering and Technology, one of which will be focusing on proteomics. These centers — located at the universities of Cork, Dublin, and Galway — were chosen from 26 applications and will foster research and technology development through partnerships between academic scientists and industry. Participating companies agreed to contribute an additional 20 percent to the awards made to each center in the form of funding, personnel, or equipment.
The National Center for Human Proteomics, funded with €13.5 million ($15.5 million) over five years, will be housed at the main campus of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) in the city center of Dublin. Its main focus will be the development and application of protein and antibody microarrays, mainly in the areas of cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, as well as protein expression analysis in disease samples by 2D gel electrophoresis and liquid chromatography. “The Royal College of Surgeons has an active medical research program, particularly in the area of cardiovascular disease,” said Dolores Cahill, the center’s newly appointed director. “I want to bring protein and antibody arraying facilities to Dublin and [apply them] in a medical environment,” she said. Cahill is returning to her native Ireland from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, where she has been leading a protein technologies group since 1998 (see ProteoMonitor 4-15-02).
According to Cahill, the center will acquire 2D gel equipment; arraying robots, including piezoelectric spraying technology; as well as instrumentation to measure protein-protein interactions and bead-based array technology. It has not settled on specific vendors yet. It will also have access to an existing proteomics core facility at RCSI, also directed by Cahill, which includes a MALDI and a Q-TOF mass spectrometer. The new center will be staffed with about 20 scientists, an RCSI statement said.
The protein microarrays developed in Cahill’s group consist of several thousand denatured human proteins expressed in E. coli. These are purified from a Uniclone non-redundant human fetal brain cDNA expression library comprising about 10,000 highly characterized clones. One of the main applications of these arrays has been screening sera from patients with autoimmune diseases for autoantibodies, which could potentially serve as diagnostic markers. Cahill plans to collaborate with several research groups throughout Ireland, which would provide the center with well-defined serum samples to look for such disease markers.
But the center will also be able to provide antibody arrays according to collaborators’ specifications.
The center’s main funding and commercial collaboration partner will be French pharmaceutical company Servier, which focuses on cardiovascular diseases. Servier has had a longstanding research relationship with the Royal College of Surgeons, where it endowed a chair of cardiovascular pharmacology in 2001. According to Cahill, Servier will establish a company laboratory at the center. In return for providing its expertise in drug screening and clinical trials, Servier will receive access to the center’s technologies. One of the joint projects will be to use protein arrays to study whether autoantibodies play a role in cardiovascular disease, Cahill said.
Servier representatives were unavailable for comment before press time.
Allegro Technologies, a Dublin-based microfluidics company, is the center’s second partner, and will deploy one engineer to help develop microfluidic chip technology for native protein arrays, which could have applications in diagnostics and drug screening.
In addition to these two partners, the center has three additionally corporate collaborators: Protagen, Surgen, and Aventis. Protagen, a proteomics company in Dortmund, Germany, of which Cahill is a shareholder, holds an exclusive license from the Max Planck Institute to Cahill’s technology for making Uniclone protein expression libraries and using them to create protein chips. According to CEO Christoph H ls, the company will provide this license to the center and will train scientists from the center in the use of the technology prior to its installation in Dublin. Later on, Protagen will collaborate with the Dublin researchers to create new protein expression libraries from tissues relevant to cardiovascular disease and utilize them to develop diagnostic protein microarrays. “We would like to use [the expression library] in special indications like cardiomyopathy, and select subsets of these proteins that can be used as a diagnostic tool,” said H ls. Eventually, Protagen is hoping to market these arrays both as a research tool and, longer term, as a diagnostic tool in collaboration with a marketing partner.
Finally, the proteomics center plans to work with Surgen, a company owned by the RCSI that specializes in banking samples from clinical trials and conducting cardiovascular pharmacogenomics studies for pharmaceutical companies. Surgen, along with Aventis, will work with the center on a cardiovascular disease project, according to Cahill.
The three centers are the first to be funded through a program that is financed out of a €365 million ($418.5 million) fund the Irish government set aside for research in the areas of information and communications technologies and biotechnology. Since 2001, €150 million ($172 million) of this amount has been awarded through a research agency called Science Foundation Ireland. “In many ways, Science Foundation Ireland was set up as an economic initiative to try and foster a research culture within Ireland,” said Caroline Ang, a program officer with SFI. Ireland, she said, has become attractive to companies in recent years as a manufacturing site, but not so much as a place to do R&D. “We are trying to kick-start it with these centers by requiring that the academic partners go out and actively foster partnerships with industrial partners,” she said. The hope is that the involvement of companies such as Servier will grow over time.