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Michigan Consortium Stoops to Serve the State s Nascent Proteomics Community

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While states such as California and Massachusetts spring more immediately to mind when it comes to homes for proteomics and other biotechnology companies, Michigan, the land of “great lakes, great location,” has embarked on an ambitious program to prove that proteomics can thrive in the heartland too.

As part of a larger initiative called the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor, the state has founded the Michigan Proteome Consortium, a joint program administered by four of the state’s key research institutions. The state will provide $64 million over 5 years from tobacco lawsuit settlements for the consortium and four other biotechnology programs to establish themselves as catalysts for business activity in biotechnology.

The concept of the Proteome Consortium has been in the works for over a year, and was officially launched Sept. 1, but only in recent months have teams of researchers at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and the Van Andel Research Institute begun moving into lab space, building groups of researchers and technicians, and acquiring equipment for experiments that span the space of proteomics research.

Next week, the 2D gel electrophoresis and mass spectrometry laboratory will become the last of the four proteomics technology focus areas to find a home, following protein-protein interaction studies, protein informatics, and protein microarrays, when it moves into facilities at the University of Michigan.

The purpose of the consortium, according to Philip Andrews, its director and a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Michigan, is to provide research services for academic researchers and proteomics companies, with priority placed on those located within the state, and training programs for undergraduate and graduate-level scientists interested in developing skills relevant to industrial proteomics research.

“Our goal is to take skills at the universities and leverage them into a cutting-edge infrastructure for small companies and other users,” Andrews said.

To accomplish these objectives, Andrews is relying on commercially available technology, beta-testing arrangements with manufacturers, and the ability of researchers within the consortium to develop new capabilities.

The proteome mapping lab, which Andrews co-directs along with Doug Gage, a biochemist at Michigan State University, will house both MALDI and tandem mass spectrometers from various manufacturers, and serve as a test site for new instruments such as Micromass’ MALDI-QTOF mass spectrometer.

Meanwhile, Brian Haab, a researcher at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, will direct another of the consortium’s component laboratories in developing protein microarrays as a tool for proteomics research. Although the project is still in its initial stages, Haab said a major portion of the consortium work will involve developing arrays for performing protein-protein interaction assays.

The keystone to these disparate research initiatives, Andrews said, is a proteome informatics group Andrews directs at the University of Michigan. To integrate new technologies and scale up the experimental throughput, a team of programmers will write software to track samples as they are analyzed and build databases to store the information in a searchable format. There are currently five programmers on staff, and Andrews expects the first version of the software to become available in the first quarter of next year.

As for whom the consortium will serve, Andrews said he has had discussions with several undisclosed companies for potential service contracts. Curagen, of New Haven, Conn., is currently collaborating with Russell Finley, a molecular biologist at Wayne State University in Detroit to map out the protein interactions in Drosophila using yeast two-hybrid technology, Finley said.

Training, Industry Style

 In addition to its research service capabilities, the consortium also has a mandate to provide undergraduates and postdocs with research training akin to what they would experience in industry.

One program that Andrews has established pairs postdocs with a mentor and advisory committee, and exposes the scientist to several different types of research problems over the course of a year. The goal is to mimic the kind of rapid shifts in emphasis that occur in industry and to provide a broad background in proteomics for the trainee, Andrews said.

“One of our jobs is to provide training for the Michigan biotechnology workforce,” said Andrews. “We want to mirror what happens in industry and focus on problem-solving abilities.”

At the moment the consortium has placed four postdocs in its various component labs, with two working in 2D gel analysis and two in yeast two-hybrid studies of protein-protein interactions. Andrews said an undisclosed company has verbally committed to providing partial funding for the training program.

The consortium also hopes to play a role in providing training for undergraduate students through summer internships at the consortium’s labs, and matching the interns with Michigan biotech companies engaged in proteomics research.

If that weren’t enough, other proteomics researchers at the publicly funded Michigan universities are planning to launch complementary initiatives, Andrews said. Sam Hanash, an expert in cancer proteomics and president of HUPO, is forming a proteomics institute that will focus on applying proteomics technologies to academic cancer research, and another group of academics is organizing a center devoted strictly to new proteomics technology development.

— JSM

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