In spring of 2008, the bioscience project “HALOmem – membrane protein structure & dynamics” was chosen as the “Centre for Innovation Competence” (ZIK) under the direction of its three initiators, Prof. Dr. Milton T. Stubbs (Institute for Biotechnology at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, MLU), Prof. Dr. Jochen Balbach (Institute for Physics, MLU) and Prof. Dr. Daniel Huster (Institute for Medical Physics and Biophysics at the University of Leipzig).
The “Centres for Innovation Competence: Create Excellence, Secure Talent” programme of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research are designed to build up excellent research approaches at universities and research centres in Eastern Germany to become internationally known centres. 26 schemes had applied for the subsidies, eight were chosen, of which two were from Halle – a major success for the MLU and the Halle science location. Over the next five years, some 6.25 million euros will be made available to each initiative.
Halle’s HALOmem ZIK is currently involved in investigating the structural biology of membrane proteins. Membrane proteins control and regulate essential functions in the human body and will therefore be of major significance in producing new kinds of customized medicines. The development of new medicines is a long, slow process, which can take up to ten years and more.
If the target molecule of a potential active ingredient is known, this period can be considerably shortened when the structure can be illuminated with atomic resolution. For example, this was how three powerful active ingredients were successfully developed comparatively rapidly for use in AIDS therapy. For membrane proteins in particular, which constitute one of the most important categories of pharmaceutical applications, structural information is only available in sufficient resolution for a few agents.
Before routine application becomes possible for industry, there is considerable need for basic research in the field of the structural biology of membrane proteins. For this reason HALOmem was attached to the MLU as an interdisciplinary scientific facility (IWE). In the university environment at the weinberg campus, HALOmem is located in direct proximity to many companies and research centres active in the fields of biotechnology, biomedicine and physics.
This university environment, which traditionally includes the focal point of protein research in the biological sciences, offers the space and the crucial expertise in structural biology to successfully carry out the necessary research steps up to the atomic structure of membrane proteins. With newly developed methods it is intended to characterize the proteins not only in their structure but also in their dynamics. The results of this research work are of great interest both for basic research and for partners in the industry.
The establishment of two groups of young researchers linked with the decision in favour of the ZIK under the auspices of HALOmem allows a broad range of innovative projects to be initiated, which will bear fruit both for basic and applied research. The first group of young researchers, which will investigate membrane protein biochemistry, will be headed by Dr Mikio Tanabe. The Japanese biochemist, currently working at the Department of Pharmacology of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (USA), investigates the membrane protein structures of the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which is a virus causing meningitis in humans. Knowledge of host pathogent recognition, which Dr Tanabe will pursue in HALOmem, could lead to new types of therapy for this deadly disease.
The second group of young researchers, which will investigate membrane protein biophysics, will be headed by German biophysicist Dr Kirsten Bacia. She is currently analyzing the function of proteins involved in the intra-cellular transport of proteins at the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology of the University of California, Berkeley (USA). In HALOmem, her working group will focus on the reconstitution of membrane proteins, and their biophysical-chemical characterization. Both groups will work hand-in-hand by closely coordinating their work.
An important part in the added value chain of HALOmem will be determining the actual structure of the membrane proteins in which the young researcher groups will be able to benefit from the interdisciplinary expertise and the considerable laboratory equipment of the initiators from biotechnology, physical chemistry and physics on the weinberg campus of the MLU. As the routine analysis of the structure of membrane proteins is still a dream at the moment, HALOmem will supply a methodical and technological basis for the use of the development of effective, structurally-based active agents for pharmaceutically relevant membrane proteins.
As a biotechnology location, Halle will benefit from this in the long term with its university and non-university facilities, as well as the companies based in the area. The initiators of the ZIK HALOmem are already working closely with the local biotech firms Scil Proteins GmbH and Probiodrug AG. After the basic research stage, these existing industry contacts will be further expanded by HALOmem in order to develop step-by-step towards application research. This will enable HALOmem to continue its existence as an independent centre of innovative competence and create jobs in the region.
As a focused centre at a location with a state-of-the-art infrastructure, short transport routes and ideal coordination opportunities, HALOmem has been able to get established very well. We assume that the research activities in this field will continue to reinforce the international reputation of this location in the field of biological sciences focusing on protein research.
The author was born in New York in 1962. He studied doctorate at the universities of Durham, Oxford und Edinburgh. In 1987 he joined the working group of Prof. Dr. Robert Huber (winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried. After working in Stockholm and at the University of Marburg, he has been Professor of Physical Biochemistry at the University of Halle since 2002.