Diamond symposium delves into the cutting-edge science of membrane proteins

The UK’s synchrotron celebrates the power of light in science and research

 
Diamond Light Source was recently the proud host of a Membrane Protein Structure Determination Symposium for industrial scientists. The symposium comprised of exhibition stands, lectures from experts in the field, and hands-on practical sessions, in which delegates learnt about sample preparation methods, data collection, and analysis strategies. The event brought together structural biologists and biochemists from a wide selection of pharmaceutical companies, allowing delegates to gain experience of the latest developments in membrane protein research in Diamond’s dedicated state-of-the-art facilities.
 
Responses to the symposium were universally positive. Representatives from various pharma companies observed how useful it was to hear from world leading experts and meet other individuals from organisations working within the field. Elizabeth Shotton is Head of Industrial Liaison at Diamond; her team organised the event, bringing in industrial representatives from across pharma. She comments:
“I’m very pleased to welcome so many industrial scientists here at Diamond to participate in the lectures and hands-on practical sessions. This workshop highlights the true spirit of industrial liaison at Diamond and it’s great to see everyone having such lively discussions.”
 
With recent advances in both technology and sample preparation methods, it is now possible to investigate the structure of membrane proteins, previously too difficult to access. Membrane proteins are important pharmaceutical targets with 60% of the current marketed drugs targeting this class of proteins. They sit on the outside of the cell, and work like gateways, allowing certain molecules inside the cell where they can have an effect. The potency of membrane protein research is clear: in 2012, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Brian K. Kobilka and Robert J. Lefkowitz for research into G-protein-coupled receptors, a type of membrane protein. By identifying the structure of these proteins, it’s possible to design drugs that neatly interact with them; this leads to drugs that are more effective and have fewer side effects.
 
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However, a major challenge in designing drugs to target membrane proteins is the need for high resolution structural information. The symposium focussed on recent approaches devised to address the major challenges related to the expression, extraction, purification and crystallisation of membrane proteins and on the latest developments in X-ray crystallography experiments at Diamond to obtain structural information from these tiny, extremely fragile but very important crystals.
 
The symposium was staged at an important time for the field; it was also staged in a significant setting. Diamond hosts the world’s first dedicated Membrane Protein Laboratory (MPL) set within a synchrotron. Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the MPL is a joint venture between Diamond and Imperial College London. Coupling facilities in this way is extremely useful in the field of membrane protein research. The intense light that synchrotrons provide allows scientists to determine the structure of membrane proteins far more quickly and easily than could be done in a normal laboratory. Membrane proteins are extremely difficult to crystallise, and often produce extremely small and fragile crystals. Collecting data from such crystals is not a straightforward task and the resolution of the X-ray diffraction data depends on both the crystal quality and on the characteristics of the data collection apparatus. Having the MPL located within Diamond allows scientists to address these difficulties by combining developments in crystallisation automation with state-of-the-art synchrotron instrumentation and software.
 
Diamond’s MPL is also special, in that it operates as a training facility for scientists wishing to learn more about working with membrane proteins. Under the guidance of mentors, scientists can learn about sample preparation and synchrotron studies in a dedicated laboratory environment and as they contribute to the field. Delegates had a taste of this by participating in sample preparation workshops run by the MPL staff in their labs. Diamond’s MPL is run by Isabel De Moraes, who helped to organise the symposium. She comments:

“It was great to see the enthusiasm of the symposium delegates during the lab sessions. The practical sessions were proper knowledge-transfer sessions with the delegates ‘absorbing’ all the information they could. I’m very pleased to see the MPL interacting with industry and also becoming a contact point regarding the latest technologies in membrane protein research.
 
The hands-on practicals also included workshops on data collection and analysis strategies run by Diamond’s Industrial Liaison team and MPL staff advising on the best approaches to obtaining high quality X-ray structural information from membrane proteins.
 
The great success of the Membrane Protein Structure Determination symposium highlights the vast potential of this area of research, as more and more organisations and individuals become involved in the field. Going forward, institutions like Diamond are likely to prove vital in the growth of membrane protein research, as technological advances support increasingly sophisticated approaches to membrane-targeted drug discovery.