In what is being billed as the largest health research project ever in Canada, the University of Toronto will lead a new $68 million effort over 3 years to map the three-dimensional atomic structure of 350 proteins related to human health.
The public-private venture is the latest in the red-hot field of structural genomics, which aims to rapidly describe proteins that drive the chemistry of cells. Just under half the funds come from Canadian agencies and the rest from private sources, including $28.4 million from the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, and $4.75 million from the pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline.
The project, called the Structural Genomics Consortium, stands out for its large scale and tight focus. The nine consortia in a similar U.S. program, for instance, receive a total of $50 million a year and are attempting to catalog a diverse array of mainly bacterial proteins. The Canadian consortium opted to focus on proteins that could lead to medications for human diseases ranging from cancer to neurological disorders and microbial infections, says Aled Edwards, a structural biologist at the University of Toronto, who will lead the effort.
"It's very exciting," says Tom Terwilliger, an x-ray crystallographer at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and head of the Mycobacterium tuberculosis Structural Genomics Consortium. "It's a very good thing that we have lots of different approaches coming out," adds John Norvell, who coordinates the structural genomics program for the National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.
Norvell and others praise SGC's decision to require that all newly acquired protein structures be immediately deposited in public databases and made freely available to all researchers. "This is critical," says Andrzej Joachimiak, a biophysicist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois and head of the Midwest Center for Structural Genomics. "You advance science much faster if you release the data and everyone can mine it."
Terwilliger and others point out that the goal of solving 350 human protein structures in 3 years is very ambitious. To date, most structural genomics consortia have targeted bacterial proteins, which tend to be easier to express, isolate, and crystallize--all of which must be accomplished before a 3D structure can be determined by the most widely used method, x-ray crystallography.