Protein research

A Cornell University engineer plans to design smaller, faster and cheaper devices for processing and producing proteins.

A two-year, $200,000 grant from the New York State Office of Science, Technology and Academic Research (NYSTAR) will help a CornellUniversity mechanical engineer design smaller, faster and cheaper devices for processing and producing proteins.

Brian Kirby, Cornell assistant professor of mechanical engineering, won NYSTAR’s 2004 James D. Watson Investigator Award, which is part of the $225 million Generating Employment Through New York State Science (Gen*NY*sis) program.

The biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are interested in cheaper and faster ways to produce and process protein pharmaceuticals, such as insulin, Kirby says. He seeks to use mechanical engineering to solve problems associated with a widely used technique, called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), for separating and identifying proteins.

“Any time anyone does an experiment to understand how proteins are expressed in an organism, they use HPLC to quantify them,” Kirby explains.

The machines that currently perform HPLC are about twice the size of a desktop computer. Kirby plans to make hand-held devices packaged in a 4-inch cube that can separate and identify proteins. The miniaturised device should be faster, cheaper and better suited to work with smaller volumes of proteins.

The grant also will help Kirby develop new procedures for protein production, which is of great interest to pharmaceutical companies that produce proteins on a large scale.

Many proteins can be synthesized in large quantities using recombinant techniques, in which bacteria are trained to make specific proteins in a controlled fashion. However, the resulting proteins are often unusable until they are “refolded” by exposing them to a series of solutions that cause the molecules to orient themselves into a form that has the desired qualities.

“Currently, protein folding protocols are not well understood,” Kirby says. He is developing what he calls an “Edisonian approach,” where miniature devices will allow researchers to explore a thousand folding protocols at the same time.

“We’re looking to come up with devices that allow us to rapidly analyse protein systems and rapidly develop protocols for protein production,” Kirby said.