NHLBI-funded proteomics center will focus on applying new technologies to fight asthma, allergies, COPD and respiratory virus infection

The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health has awarded the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston an $11 million, five-year contract to apply proteomic analysis methods to the study of asthma, allergies, respiratory virus infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease associated with airway inflammation.

The new contract continues an earlier initiative that created the UTMB NHLBI Proteomics Center in 2002. Proteomics is the systematic study of the expression of proteins, the tiny molecular machines that do the work of cells — a rapidly developing discipline that has become increasingly important to biomedical research.

“Our earlier efforts were focused on developing technologies to look globally at the proteins involved in the airway inflammation relating to asthma and allergies,” said Professor Alexander Kurosky, principal investigator and director of the proteomics center. “Now, working in concert with UTMB’s Institute for Translational Science, we’re going to increase our focus on clinical applications for these technologies.”

The new contract will help fund research already underway by Dr. Allan Brasier and Dr. William Calhoun on distinctive protein profiles associated with different subtypes of asthma. Other projects include studies of the role of oxidative stress — damage done by powerfully reactive oxygen compounds — in respiratory virus infections, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“We’re very well positioned to expand the clinical applications of proteomics in airway disease,” said Brasier, associate director of the proteomics center and director of the ITS. “We’re also making a big push to marry the mathematical and physical sciences and biology to create quantitative ways of measuring biological phenomena, which can help us develop some very powerful new clinical technologies.”

For example, Brasier said, as part of the protein center contract, UTMB proteomics researchers will push to identify “protein fingerprints” of asthma subtypes that resist steroid therapy, with the goal of saving asthma patients from needless exposure to steroid side effects. Other scientists involved in the project will study newly discovered processes involved in lung inflammation and its role in asthma, COPD and respiratory viral infections.

New technologies that allow faster and more efficient measurement of protein levels will provide the researchers with unprecedented amounts of data. Two of the project’s teams will focus on further developing new methods to extract proteomic information from samples, while a core group of bioinformaticists — specialists in applying mathematical and computational techniques to biological problems — will provide the computing power needed to interpret the data and produce new insights in clinical and basic science.

“Computational expertise is extremely important to this center, and we’ve built up a very strong bioinformatics program at UTMB,” Kurosky said. “It’s a really talented group, and they’re crucial to fulfilling the great potential of this effort.”

Overall, the project will involve 13 members from a wide variety of disciplines, including both basic scientists and clinicians. It is one of seven proteomics centers funded in 2010 by the NHLBI, including groups at Stanford, Yale, Johns Hopkins University, UCLA, Boston University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.