Chemists Make a Sweet Discovery

Researcher presents a new technique for accessing desired proteins in a highly predictable manner.

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Four years ago, a student approached Trinity University chemistry professor Adam Urbach expressing an interest in diabetic research.  Christopher Morris, then a pre-med major who also was a Type 2 diabetic using an insulin pump, said he wanted to cure diseases, and in particular, he wanted to cure his own disease.

Urbach said he explained that scientists cure diseases and recalled an insulin project he had begun but shelved. With Morris as his motivator, Urbach invited the student to join his research group, and the insulin work began anew in the summer of 2007. Morris graduated in 2008 and went on to pursue a doctorate instead of entering medical school, but he is one of five Trinity University students listed as authors of a ground-breaking scholarly article published in a June edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. 

Titled "Molecular Recognition of Insulin by a Synthetic Receptor," the article presents a new technique for accessing desired proteins in a highly predictable manner. Urbach's research group uses artificial receptors to bind to human insulin at a single, predetermined location.  "There is one position on every protein that acts as a sort of handle for us to grab onto. That is the chemical nature of this paper," Urbach said.

This discovery is exciting because it suggests that the process can be generalized for other proteins, not only the insulin protein, Urbach said.

As his research evolved, Urbach noted that the tail of the protein unfolds like a ball of string and is captured by the receptor, an activity resembling a cat's playful attempt to snare string with its paw. Urbach worked with Venetia Dubose, publications designer in Trinity's Office of University Communications, to develop a cat-themed image depicting the unfolding protein (see illustration).

A simple blood test for insulin would be a very useful complement to blood sugar tests for managing diabetes, Urbach said. He is quick to point out that no blood is used in experiments in his lab and that he and his researchers are still far from developing a test that would work well with blood.

The new advancement is a critical step toward the goal of "protein recognition" by which any protein could be found and measured, by demonstrating a strategy that allows the binding of a desired protein based on which amino acid unit is located at the end of the tail, a concept that has not yet been advanced, he said.

The project has moved Urbach's researchers in an unexpected and exciting direction, and they plan to continue working on protein recognition and insulin-related science.

Urbach is spending the 2011-12 year on academic leave to pursue studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif., to learn proteomics and protein engineering techniques that will be incorporated into his ongoing research program at Trinity.

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