Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, Martin Andersson och Fredrik Höök
​Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, Martin Andersson and Fredrik Höök, winners of the Areas of Advance Award 2019. Photo: Johan Bodell.​

Areas of Advance Award for exploring the structure of proteins

​This year's Areas of Advance Award is given for the development of a unique method of analysing the structure and chemical composition of proteins. Increasing our knowledge of proteins could yield many advances, including the development of new and more effective drugs.
​The Areas of Advance Award this year goes to Martin Andersson, Pernilla Wittung Stafshede and Fredrik Höök, who combined materials analysis with biology using a clear multidisciplinary approach.

“It is very encouraging to have our work highlighted in this way,” says Martin Andersson, who first initiated the research project.

He contacted Pernilla Wittung Stafshede and Fredrik Höök to combine research expertise from the three departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Biology and Biological Engineering and Physics. The aim of the project is to develop a unique method for studying proteins, and thereby open up new knowledge and greater understanding of their functions.

High resolution analysis
An important group of proteins, especially when it comes to development of pharmaceuticals, are those found in the membrane of cells. About 60 percent of all pharmaceuticals target membrane-bound proteins, directly or indirectly, which shows their great importance.

However, due to these proteins’ need for the cell membrane environment, it is difficult to analyse their structure with established methods, such as X-ray crystallography, magnetic resonance imaging or cryo-electron microscopy.

The current project makes use of Atom Probe Tomography instead, with which both the structure and chemical composition of proteins can be observed. The technology offers enormous precision. At present the researchers have shown that it is possible to determine the structure of individual proteins with approximately 1 nanometre resolution. However, the challenge lies in designing a sample preparation method that makes the process faster, and allows to focus on individual proteins, which is the focus of the collaboration.

“We still have a lot to learn about proteins, such as those that contribute to ‘misfolding’ diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The proteins involved here are very flexible and begin to clump together during illness, but we do not know why and how because they are difficult to study with other methods,” says Pernilla Wittung Stafshede.

New use of an established method
Atom Probe Tomography is a well-established technology, but it has mainly been used previously to characterise metals and other hard materials. Applying the method to biological materials, especially proteins, shows an innovative approach. The researchers have continued work to develop and adapt the sample preparation process.

“Our project can be described as high-risk – we do not yet know if it will be successful. But if we do succeed, it could potentially be of huge benefit. Getting the Areas of Advance Award is a strong encouragement to continue,” says Fredrik Höök, Professor of Physics.

The current project has been financed by the Materials Science Area of Advance.
“It is very valuable that Chalmers' Areas of Advance can offer support for early testing of our idea. We need to be able to show preliminary results in order to successfully seek funds from external donors,” says Martin Andersson.

Now, the first scientific article has been accepted, and the three researchers hope to expand the project going forward. A first application was made a couple of years ago but was rejected.

“But now we have shown that the method works! Sometimes one has to ignore some of the accepted expertise and go on intuition. And then you have to have the opportunity to experiment,” says Martin Andersson.


 
Text: Malin Ulfvarson
Photo: Johan Bodell

 
The Areas of Advance Award
With the Areas of Advance Award, Chalmers looks to reward those who have made outstanding contributions to cross-border collaborations and who, in the spirit of the Areas of Advance, integrate research, education and utilisation. The award will be given out during the Chalmers doctoral conferment ceremony on 18 May, 2019.

Recipients
The project is led by Martin Andersson, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, in collaboration with Professor Pernilla Wittung Stafshede, Biology and Biological Engineering and Professor Fredrik Höök, Physics.

Note
Chalmers were international pioneers in the development of Atom Probe Tomography for hard materials, a technology initiated by Professor Hans-Olof Andrén during the 70s. The application of Atom Probe Tomography to study proteins began a few years ago at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, by a project group consisting of Dr. Gustav Sundell, Dr. Mats Hulander and doctoral student Astrid Pihl, under the leadership of Professor Martin Andersson.



Previously published news articles about the three prize winners:

Martin Andersson: Skeletal imitation reveals how bones grow atom-by-atom (Nov 2018)

Pernilla Wittung Stafshede: Eating fish could prevent Parkinson's disease (May 2018)

Fredrik Höök: 75 MSEK for developing target seeking biological pharmaceuticals (Feb 2017)

Published: Tue 30 Apr 2019. Modified: Tue 07 May 2019