Researchers view deadly germ samples in 3-D to find cures

Sara Peck

As if the thought of cholera, rabies, West Nile Virus or Ebola wasn’t frightening enough, Northwestern researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine are examining these lethal bacteria in 3-D.

X-rays and computer-generated images are being used to study key proteins of these microbial killers to develop combative pharmaceutical treatments.

“We’re laying the groundwork for studies that design drugs to prevent and treat these diseases,” said professor Wayne Anderson, the project leader and co-director of the NU Synchrotron Research Center.

Anderson’s team, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Toronto, Washington University, the University of Virginia and six other institutions have worked for seven years examining the proteins of these infectious diseases.

“What we’re doing is identifying key proteins of different pathogens and determining the 3-D arrangement of the atoms,” Anderson said. “We want to pick out the proteins that are critical to growth or cause the disease.”

Researchers use a one-half mile long machine called a Synchrotron from Argonne National Laboratory to aim more intense X-ray beams at the orbiting electrons of the protein atoms.

“We record the X-rays that scatter off of the electrons and work backwards to see what the arrangement of atoms that must have been there,” Anderson said. “It allows us to know the relative arrangement of the proteins.”

The project is also highly collaborative, involving the creation of a Web site as an information exchange between drug developers and researchers. The Web site is currently under construction, but Anderson said it will be up and running soon.

“There is a beginning of a Web site, but it’s not quite finished,” he said. “It will have a list of all the proteins we study and the results of where we are in the process.”

This site will serve as a dialogue between researchers and pharmaceutical developers working to treat diseases caused by the pathogens studied by Anderson and his team.

“We want to provide a way to interact with a broader scientific community so they can give us their input on which pathogens we should study and what our priorities should be,” Anderson said. “We are specialists in the technology, not each disease.”

Anderson said he and his fellow researchers hope to expand the existing project even further.

“We’ve been developing methods to automate as much of the process as we can to be able to look at many more proteins per year,” he said. “We’re laying the groundwork.”

Reach Sara Peck at [email protected]