Nearly $1 million NIH instrumentation grant increases research capabilities

The University of Arizona’s shared, state-of-the-art research infrastructure is one of the ways scientists reduce costs while staying ahead of the curve in their respective research programs. Called core facilities, they make available the very latest in specific expertise and technology to UA scientists, and in some cases, academic and industry scientists statewide, nationally and internationally.

A $916,000 grant from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR) has expanded the capacity of one of those core facilities—the ArizonaProteomics Consortium—by funding a new mass spectrometer, the LTQ Velos Orbitrap LC-MC/MS system and Advion Nanomate source. The NCRR, part of the National Institutes of Health, provides laboratory scientists and clinical researchers with the tools and training they need to understand, detect, treat and prevent a wide range of diseases.

George Tsaprailis, PhD, a research scientist at the UA College of Pharmacy, is the consortium’s director.

“This NCRR shared instrument grant was supported by nine scientists here at the UA who will benefit from the capabilities of this new mass spectrometer,” says Tsaprailis, who is also a BIO5 member and primary investigator on the grant application. “These scientists are interested in developing Valley Fever vaccines, detecting pathogens that can used for biological terrorism, discovering proteins modified as a result of cardiovascular stress, proteins related to melanoma and prostate cancer, as well as increasing our basic knowledge of how proteins interact with other proteins.”

To fully realize the potential of advances in genomics, the proteins encoded by the approximately 35,000 genes found in the human genome must be understood. Proteomics is the study of the nature and quantity of proteins and how they behave and interact in diseased and healthy cells. Proteins play many roles, organizing life itself, forming bone and muscle, controlling metabolism and fighting infections. The package of proteins encoded in an organism’s genome constitute its proteome.

The basic units of proteins (amino acids) are tiny, only 10 to 27 atoms—too small for any microscope. There are 20 basic amino acids, which are assembled together into peptides. Peptides connected together make up the protein structure. The key to proteomics is to obtain mass or structural information at the peptide level, and in recent years, at the whole protein level as well.

Mass spectrometers are sophisticated “weight scales” that measure with very high precision the mass of amino acids, peptides and proteins. They also have the ability to break peptides and proteins down to the amino acid level and weigh out these fragments. The weights of these fragments provide the peptide sequence. Figuring out these peptide sequences allows scientists to map them to a protein's structure and determine a protein's identity.

The UA formed the consortium in 2006 with a coalition of several older proteomics units. Work in proteomics began in 1998 in the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center at the College of Pharmacy. It expanded to include the Arizona Cancer Center in 2001. In 2003 a new lab at BIO5 was launched with support of the Arizona Research Laboratories and the chemistry department. All of those units eventually joined to form the new consortium.

“The UA community has been very supportive of our campus-wide proteomics initiatives over the years, underscoring the tremendous opportunity to improve health at the protein level,” Tsaprailis says.

The Arizona Proteomics Consortium is also the mass spectrometry and proteomics core for the Pacific Southwest Regional Center of Excellence in Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Universityof California Irvine.