Graduate students prepare samples for analysis in mass spectrometers.
A new clinical research centre is being envisioned for Vancouver Island.
The Centre would feature a partnership between the IMP and the University of Victoria-Genome BC Proteomics Centre (the latter a collaboration between Island Health and the University of Victoria). Together, the two partners would focus on translating proteomics research – the study of protein expression in an organism – into more effective clinical treatments for serious diseases, such as diabetes and cancer.
The key to this initiative, says Dr. Bruce Wright, the IMP’s Regional Associate Dean, is the analytical expertise the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre would bring. “Their strength is not that they have expensive, high-end equipment; they do, and that’s significant,” he said. “But more importantly, they know how to use it – and it’s resulted in their reputation as an excellent proteomics platform.”
This reputation extends beyond the City of Victoria, the province, and even Canada. “We have clients around the world,” said Dr. Christoph Borchers, the Centre’s Director and Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at UVic. “We examine samples for academic, government, and private institutions, some of which are very well known, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” Recently, the Centre signed a memorandum of understanding with the US Cancer Research Program, initiated and directed by US Vice President Joe Biden, which includes three other universities that Borchers has worked with, including UBC, McGill, and the Leibniz Institute for Analytical Sciences in Dortmund, Germany.
Dr. Borchers brings an abundance of leadership experience to the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre. Originally from Germany, he received a Ph.D. in Chemistry, with a focus on protein chemistry using mass spectrometry. Shortly after, he was appointed Director of UNC-Duke Proteomics Facility in North Carolina, USA. Today, alongside his UVic Professorship and role as Director with the Proteomics Centre, Dr. Borchers is a Professor in McGill University’s Department of Oncology, and holds the Segal Chair in Molecular Oncology at the Jewish General Hospital at McGill.
While his leadership is moving the Proteomics Centre in exciting directions, Dr. Borchers is quick to acknowledge the roughly 30-person team – a combination of scientists, researchers, staff, and students – who’ve been instrumental to the Centre’s success. “We have excellent people solving tough biological problems. They’re publishing high-impact articles in renowned journals, like Nature. They’re very productive, and we’re lucky to have them.”
What’s the primary goal of the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre and its talented team? Using mass spectrometers – it has 11 of them, which together cost roughly $10 million – the Centre analyzes the proteome, or the protein content, of biological samples. The sample is carefully prepared, then introduced into a mass spectrometer, which separates components on the basis of their mass and electrical charge. Modern mass spectrometers enable the analysis of large, clinically-important biomolecules, such as antibodies and proteins, typically by putting multiple charges on each molecule. Inside the machine, a second stage of mass spectrometry can be used to read off the amino acid sequence of the protein like a bar code. The spacing between the bars can be used to pinpoint modifications to specific amino acids that make up the proteins in the sample.
“Essentially, mass spectrometers are fancy scales – and they’re incredibly precise,” said Derek Smith, the Proteomic Centre’s Lab Manager. “But these machines can do more than that: proteins can be covered in chemical groups, such as sugars or phosphates, which affect how they interact with other proteins. We can actually see how proteins talk to each other, what mutations are occurring, in great detail.”
The UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre has 11 mass spectrometers, each ranging from $500,000 to $2 million.
Sometimes these mutations are bad news. For example, proteins may interact in a way that allows for the formation of cancer cells. But thanks to the field of proteomics, powered by equipment like mass spectrometers, scientists can spot patterns that lead to such diseases. That research can then be used to develop, say, inhibitor drugs that prevent those interactions from taking place. “Right now, cancer therapies aren’t as effective as we’d like,” said Dr. Borchers. “Some have a response rate of 60%; other are only 30%. But with proteomics data, combined with the genomics (the study of DNA), we have the opportunity to develop treatments that are extremely effective for a variety of conditions and diseases.”
Despite this exciting potential, the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre is only an analytical lab. It examines samples for other organizations, but does not set up medical research projects in-house – and this is precisely what the partnership with UBC, by way of the Island Medical Program, would provide. “The Proteomics Centre has the expertise and the analytical capabilities,” says Dr. Wright. “And if we pair that with the IMP, which has the infrastructure to define the research and develop the results, we can build a centre that can do it all: create research protocols and develop clinically relevant treatments.”
The combined initiative, though still conceptual, has been well-received. The idea began when Dr. Wright first learned about the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre two years ago. At that time, the Centre was working with McGill on the clinical application of the its research, but there was no collaboration with the medical school next door – UBC’s Island Medical Program. “Everyone that I talked with – UBC, UVic, Island Health, the Proteomics Centre itself – felt there was an excellent opportunity to combine forces,” said Wright. Dr. Borchers agreed: “We had people asking us why we were doing this work in Montreal but not here. It was a great question. But before Bruce, we didn’t have someone seriously promoting the partnership.” Since then, no official decisions have been made, but the prospects are looking good: nearly $1.8 million in funding is being considered for the centre, and there’s been discussions about where the space might be located.
If all goes according to plan, the new clinical proteomics centre will mark the beginning of an exciting partnership on the Island. “We’d like to have satellite centres around Canada, with the UVic-Genome BC Proteomics Centre as the primary node,” said Dr. Borchers. “This is already happening: we’re looking at a partnership with the Sick Kids Hospital, in Toronto, and the BC Cancer Agency.” For Dr. Bruce Wright, this expansion would not only include other satellites around Canada, but a comprehensive research platform that could improve the health of populations on the Island and across the country. “We could combine this proteomics data with genomics data, clinical information, medical information, and social determinants of health, like income” he said. “Such a database would help us really understand – and improve – the overall health of our communities. And that’s a very good thing.”