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The recent invention of an X-ray laser so powerful it can visualize objects too tiny to be seen with a microscope has placed Buffalo in a key role in a national effort to capture images of the ultra-small basic structures of life.

The University at Buffalo, representing a group of eight research universities and institutes, has received a $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation for work to refine the new technology and apply it to health care.

By cracking the atomic code of proteins, the tens of thousands of molecules that do most of the work in the body, scientists can design drugs that stimulate them to do their jobs or that block such disease-causing invaders as viruses. Similarly, they can find weak spots in parasites and pathogens to target for treatments.

The institutions, including the Hauptman-Woodward Medical Research Institute, today will announce the establishment of the BioXFEL research center in Buffalo. XFEL stands for X-ray free electron laser, a new laser capable of capturing images of incredibly small things.

The two-mile long device, located in California, is so powerful it can heat material to 2 million degrees Celsius, comparable to temperatures deep in the sun. It sends out short pulses like a strobe light of a few millionths of a billionth of a second, long enough to take pictures of a molecule before vaporizing it.

The prestigious scientific journal “Science” picked the use of an X-ray laser to decipher the structure of a biochemical that helps the parasite that causes African sleeping sickness as one of the 10 most important scientific breakthroughs of 2012 because it showed the huge potential for finding targets for treatment.

“This is a very big deal for us,” said Eaton E. Lattman, chief executive officer of Hauptman-Woodward and director of the new center. “It brings prestige and money. And, it allows us to develop opportunities to attract people and more grants for related projects.”

The formation of BioXFEL and award of the highly competitive federal grant also puts UB on the cutting edge of an area of intense international scientific interest, said Lattman, a professor in the UB Department of Structural Biology.

“The university is trying to raise its academic standing, and this is a major visible sign,” he said.

The consortium’s X-ray laser was developed at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif., which is operated by Stanford University on behalf of the Department of Energy. Other XFELs are under construction or planned around the world.

Additional partners in the five-year grant include Arizona State University, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cornell University, Rice University, the University of California at San Francisco and the University of California at Davis.

The techniques the BioXFEL center will develop could shorten the process of determining protein structure from years to days, officials said.

One related project will try to image photosynthesis, the process used by plants to convert light into the energy they need to fuel their activities. Another will try to achieve the long-standing scientific goal of seeing previously hidden life processes.

“We will be developing new techniques for making movies of molecular machines at work, and of viruses and biomolecules in their natural wet environment undergoing chemical change,” John C. H. Spence, an Arizona State physics professor who will serve as the center’s scientific director, said in a statement.

Hauptman-Woodward’s role will focus on its specialty – understanding the structures of biological molecules, particularly proteins, to learn how they function and interact. Proteins play a vital role in just about every activity in the body, from forming hair to carrying oxygen in the blood to allowing muscles to move.

One of the ways scientists examine the shape of things they can’t see even with a powerful microscope is by growing solid crystals of the substance they are trying to study. Then they aim X-rays at the crystals in a complicated process that shows a molecule’s three-dimensional shape.

The late Herbert A. Hauptman shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for figuring out a mathematical process for analyzing the structure of crystals.

The institute has been growing crystals of proteins for hundreds of clients throughout the U.S. for a decade. Current crystallography has deciphered the structures of thousands of proteins. But many other proteins and biochemicals don’t form the crystals necessary for this technique.

Lattman said Hauptman-Woodward will work to refine the procedures for growing and using crystals with the new laser. Among other things, much smaller crystals can be used for study by the X-ray laser.

“Crystals are tough to grow, and with the X-ray laser, we can use crystals thousands of times smaller. It’s the difference between diamonds and diamond grit,” he said.

Because this technique is so new, much work remains to be done before it can be used routinely, said Lattman.

“The process needs to be streamlined. Right now, every single step takes a heroic effort,” he said.

The BioXFEL center’s headquarters will be located at 700 Ellicott St. on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus in the building that houses both the Hauptman-Woodward Institute and UB’s Department of Structural Biology.

Lattman said the partnership with UB on BioXFEL may lead to other collaborations in the future and could integrate with a plan announced last month by the Cuomo administration to turn the Buffalo Niagara region into a hub for nanotechnology.

email: hdavis@buffnews.coom