Protein building blocks for medical diagnosis: researchers in Bayreuth seek to accurately detect pathogens
University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 025/2018, 15 February 2018
An EU-funded research project in which a group of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker of the University of Bayreuth plays a major role is expected to open up new possibilities for medical research and diagnosis. The project focuses on a “construction kit” for producing new proteins which are capable of helping scientists detect antigens (such as pathogens) and which are considerably more effective than the antibodies currently in use.
Antigens are foreign bodies that elicit an immune response. Once they make their way into an organism’s body, antibodies which make chemical bonds with the antigens are produced, ideally rendering them harmless. Antibodies that are produced by identical immune cells are referred to as “monoclonal antibodies”. They are often used in medical research and diagnosis to detect infections, for cancer screening, and in pregnancy tests. However, research over the past several years has shown that the procedure for producing monoclonal antibodies involves some considerable disadvantages: the procedure continues to result in a number of antibodies that can also bond with the substructures of other antigens. For this reason, they are not well-suited for being able to diagnose the presence of specific pathogens. Moreover, the details concerning the molecular structures of the antibodies that were produced often remain undocumented.
This is where the European project involving cooperation between research groups at the University of Bayreuth, Aston University in Birmingham, and the University of Zürich comes into play. Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker (Biochemistry) coordinates the new project entitled “PRe-ART” on behalf of the University of Bayreuth. The objective is to develop new, less expensive molecules that cover all functions for which monoclonal antibodies have been used to date in the area of medical research and diagnosis. These structures are expected to be fully defined and work more precisely than antibodies. In particular, they must be absolutely reliable when it comes to indicating the presence of special antigens.
Proteins constructed in a modular manner provide the starting point for this project. Each module in such a protein is able to recognize and attach to two neighbouring amino acids in an antigen. Metaphorically speaking, each protein module contains key holes into which key-like bonding sections of the antigens are inserted. It is crucial that each antigen represents a sequence composed of several such sections. The scientists in Bayreuth, Birmingham, and Zürich now want to produce a number of different proteins that attach to familiar antigen sequences. They are planning to create a system similar to a construction kit that will enable protein modules to be put together like Legos to form larger molecules. It is these larger proteins, which are expected to one day replace the monoclonal antibodies currently in use.
“This construction kit system will allow us to avoid the substantial disadvantages associated with the previous industrial process for producing antibodies from the very outset. The new proteins will act as accurate probes in the body, capable of reliably indicating specific antigens. This opens up a completely new range of possibilities for research, for example, on the origin of infections or allergies and in medical diagnosis,” explained Prof. Höcker. “Since this project was launched in the autumn of 2017, we have been able to make progress thanks to the close cooperation between our three research groups,” she added.
The European Union is funding the new research project as a FET (“Future and Emerging Technologies”) Open Project in in the scope of “Horizon 2020”. These projects seek to develop highly innovative and technologically demanding research ideas to bring useful applications in business and society within reach.
Prof. Dr. Birte Höcker
University of Bayreuth
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-7845
University of Bayreuth
Universitätsstr. 30 / ZUV
Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-5356