University of Saskatchewan

September 20, 2014   

U of S Lab Scores a World First in Biotechnology Research

Tuesday, December 8, 1998

U of S Lab Scores a World First in Biotechnology Research

A University of Saskatchewan lab is the first in the world to convert an antibody into an enzyme, a discovery which could pave the way for better tools to kill viruses, dissolve blood clots, and destroy toxins in crop seeds such as canola.

The team's findings have just been published in the November issue of the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Nature Biotechnology.

"People were skeptical about whether it was possible to convert an antibody into an enzyme," said biochemistry professor Jeremy Lee who directs the lab where the work was done.

"That's because the function of enzymes (proteins that cause or speed up the body's chemical reactions) is very different from that of antibodies (proteins that defend the body from foreign invaders). But we have shown that these functions can be made to be quite similar."

Antibodies normally rid the body of viruses or other invaders by binding to them, which signals other parts of the immune system to send in the troops. This requires a lot of antibodies and takes time so scientists are now trying to create abzymes -- antibodies armed with enzyme power -- which can attack viruses directly and quickly. Unlike normal antibodies, these abzymes can hit one virus, move on, and strike another.

The U of S team has come up with a new method of creating abzymes and has developed the fastest-acting ones ever produced in a lab.

"This means one abzyme can chew up 100 molecules per second rather than just one molecule per second, for example," Lee said.

While applications of this new basic research to medicine and crop biotechnology are now theoretically possible, they are still a long way off, he cautions.

"It took us 10 years to make this abzyme. It will take five to 10 years to make an abzyme that would be medically useful," he said. However, an abzyme that could attack toxins in crop seeds could likely be developed sooner, he added.

He notes the research is not patentable because it involves an application of an existing protein engineering technology.

The work was carried out by Lee, former U of S post-doctoral fellows Michael Fletcher and Alena Kuderova, and collaborator Miraslaw Cygler, a senior scientist with the National Research Council's Biotechnology Research Institute in Montreal.

The research was funded by Medical Research Council grants to Lee and by fellowships to Fletcher and Kuderova from Saskatchewan's Health Services Utilization and Research Commission (HSURC).

Lee points out the really time-consuming part of the research is the analysis of protein structures. This work can be done much faster using a synchrotron light facility. At present, Canada doesn't have such a facility so U of S researchers incur extra costs to use synchrotron facilities in countries such as the United States and Japan.

Lee says if the Canadian Light Source "synchrotron" project is built on the U of S campus, it will be extremely useful for this and other projects. "Structural biology is really key to medical research now," he stresses.

The $178.2-million CLS project hinges on winning $71.3 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation. A decision on CFI funding is expected in March.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Jeremy Lee
Biochemistry Department
College of Medicine
Ph: (306) 966-4371

Kathryn Warden
Research Communications Officer
Office of Vice-President Research
Ph: (306) 966-2506

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