Cryo-electron microscope pushes the boundaries of medicine development

The Center for Structural Biology (VIB-VUB), headed by Professors Jan Steyaert and Han Remaut officially opened the ‘international facility for Bio Electron Cryogenic Microscopy’ (BECM) at the VUB Campus in Brussels. The research center houses the a new kind cryo-electron microscope (cryo-EM), one of just three in the world. The microscope pushes the boundaries of research into active proteins for the development of medicines and, thanks to its unique properties, will be operating on a 24/7 basis. 

The microscope, which is unique in Europe and was installed thanks to a four-million-euro grant from Research Foundation - Flanders (FWO) allows images of the building blocks of the human body to be produced with atomic precision. The VIB-VUB Center for Structural Biology has received substantial international acclaim for its research into the structure and function of proteins. Living beings, ranging from humans all the way down to bacteria, are composed of thousands of different proteins, each of which has a unique structure and is needed for a different function in the cell. These proteins ensure the proper functioning of the cells. However, they are also a vital target for medication in combating diseases.

Despite the crucial importance of proteins for the efficacy of medicines, our knowledge of the function of human proteins extends to only one-third of these, of which the structure of only one in ten is known. This is why scientists have spent years searching for suitable imaging techniques that can create images at an atomic level of how these molecules function and the way in which they interact.

Prof. Jan Steyaert (VIB-VUB): “Knowledge of the structure of a protein – knowing where each atom is located exactly – is important for increasing our understanding of the human body. If we had greater knowledge about the function and structure of all proteins, we would be able to understand all diseases and develop methods to combat these. We could replace the defective protein, or heal it, because medicines have an effect on proteins.”

The new microscope will allow researchers to study these proteins, which they had never before been able to see with such precision using any other method. The device is so unique that other universities as well as biotechnology companies are lining up to use it for measurement purposes.

Prof. Han Remaut (VIB-VUB): “Until now, we primarily made use of the technique of X-ray crystallography, in which X-rays are sent coursing through a protein in a particle accelerator. The results are very good, but the big disadvantage is that this method can only be applied to proteins that have been crystallized before being subjected to this process. That’s the hitch. This is not always possible and often takes years. As a result, the structure of many proteins is still unknown, particularly if these are flexible or organize themselves in larger compounds through mutual interactions.”

The new microscope will run be run as a multi-user facility under the expert supervision of Prof. Rouslan Efremov. The 4 meter high microscope is housed in the former student housing complex, at a central location on the VUB Campus in Etterbeek. The modernist concrete modules were built in the nineteen-seventies by architect Willy Van Der Meeren.

The new facility will be officially opened today by Flemish Minister of Labor, Economics, Innovation and Sport Philippe Muyters. “This unique microscope is once again proof of the fact that we have world-class researchers, universities and research centers. As a government body, it is our task to invest in creating ideal circumstances for our researchers, because new discoveries are often linked to improved equipment. What’s also important is the right focus, and interdisciplinary collaboration. I am very pleased that VIB and VUB can join forces on this project and will make this infrastructure available to the pharmaceutical industry. I am certain that this will provide a significant impulse to new breakthroughs.”

Cedric Ververken is the CEO of the VIB-VUB spin-off Confo Therapeutics. “The opening of the state-of-the-art BECM center is a milestone for VIB-VUB, and will also offer Confo Therapeutics new opportunities as an industrial partner. This high-resolution electron microscope will allow our researchers, together with VIB-VUB, to identify the 3-D structure of proteins so that we will be able to develop better medicines more efficiently.”

Nobel Prize winner cryo-electron microscopy guest of honor at inauguration

The guest of honor at the inauguration, which is to be attended by 300 invitees, is Professor Richard Henderson (Medical Research Council, Cambridge, UK), recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for “developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”. According to the Nobel Committee, his research into the ingenious operation of the cryo-electron microscope, which was conducted jointly with Professors Jacques Dubochet and Joachim Frank, comprised a breakthrough in the study of living active proteins.

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