By: Pallava Bagla
In what is being called a medical breakthrough study that could change the way in which cancers and heart problems are diagnosed and treated, researchers from the Institute of Bioinformatics (IOB), Bangalore, as part of a 72-member team, have for the first time deciphered a near complete protein map of human beings.
While the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, is the lead American partner, 46 researchers are Indians. The finding, to be published on Thursday in leading British journal Nature as a cover feature titled “A Draft Map of the Human Proteome”, could offer deeper insight into why humans suffer from diabetes, cancer and cardiac problems among other diseases.
Explaining the study, lead researcher Akhilesh Pandey, who hails from Kanpur and is currently a professor at the Johns Hopkins University and founder director of IOB, Bangalore, said, “One can think of the human body as a huge library where each protein is a book. The difficulty is that we don’t have a comprehensive catalogue that gives us the titles of the available books and where to find them. We think we now have a good first draft of that comprehensive catalogue.”
This is the next big thing that genetic researchers have been waiting for after the human genome project. While researchers had felt that mere sequencing of the genes would unlock the mystery of life, the true potential of the human genome mapping could not be realised. Scientists hit a roadblock as not enough was known about the proteins that translate the genetic information into functional units like enzymes and proteins. Most human diseases and aging happen because proteins and enzymes become dysfunctional —nobody fully understands why.
“Although India did not participate in the human genome project, completion of a human proteome map by this team now puts India at the forefront of the international efforts to characterise the human proteome. This should be truly a matter for pride for science and scientists working in India,” said Pandey.
“While DNA preserves the code of life and the human genome project deciphered that, a similar estimate for proteins, which determine the outcome of life, was not available. The human proteome map is a major step in that direction,” said Shahid Jameel, a well-known molecular biologist and head of Wellcome Trust, Department of Biotechnology, India Alliance that provided Rs 1.5 crore over two years for the project.
The team analysed 30 different tissue samples from adults and foetuses to arrive at the map of proteins coded by 17,294 different genes.
“We identified more than 2,000 proteins that were labelled as ‘missing proteins’ by the international research community as they had never been detected or measured. A remarkable achievement is the identification of almost 200 novel proteins in humans that had not been discovered,” said Harsh Gowda of IOB.
“The group has built a publicly available interactive database for analysis of their data sets which could be an important resource for biological research and medical diagnosis,” said the report in Nature.
Prof K Vijay Raghavan, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, said the research “links proteins directly to diseases”. He said this would help in in targeted drug discovery as it gives a “peek into the dynamics of how a human cell works”.
— The writer is a correspondent for Science .