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Personalised treatment becoming reality

Science for Life Lab in forefront of 'Age of Omics'

“We must move away from the average drug for the average person," says Mathias Uhlén, professor of microbiology and leader of the Human Protein Atlas project. (Photo: Colourbox)

Life Science

Published Apr 08, 2015

Researchers at KTH's Science for Life Laboratory are taking the lead in finding key biomarkers that could enable more effective, individualised treatment of serious diseases.

The right treatment, for the right person, at the right time. That’s one of the aims behind the first-ever map of the human proteome, which was recently unveiled by researchers at Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Uppsala University.

Four ways the Protein Atlas is used to fight disease

Here are four ways researchers at KTH have used the Human Protein Atlas to improve our understanding of major diseases.

Malaria

Malaria can be lethal or mild, and up to now there is no accurate way to know whether a stricken child is suffering a lethal variant of the mosquito-borne parasite. But malaria experts are excited about the discovery of biomarkers that could make it possible to know early on which patients need extra care. The researchers identified specific proteins that appear in the blood plasma of children with severe malaria syndromes. Testing for these biomarkers may soon begin in Nigeria.

Read: Discovery could help prevent malaria deaths 

ALS

In what is believed to be the most extensive plasma profiling study conducted on people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), researchers have identified three possible proteins as biomarkers for the deadly disease.

Read: Plasma profiling reveals three proteins associated to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 

Muscular Dystrophy

Duchenne muscular dystrophy results from a lack, or impaired function, of the protein dystrophin, a major component of muscles. Working with an international research team, KTH researchers have discovered how to create a variant of dystrophin that can mitigate muscle atrophy. This could in turn lead to the development of new therapies for muscular dystrophy.

Read:  New hope in fight against muscular dystrophy 

Cancer

Researchers found decreased levels of the protein CNDP1 in the plasma of patients suffering from prostate cancer – and the levels were distinctly different in patients with diagnosed lymph node metastasis.  This refined understanding of CNDP1 may contribute to an alternative way to detect prostate cancer and lymph node status.

Read:  Analysis of plasma from prostate cancer patients links decreased carnosine dipeptidase 1 levels to lymph node metastasis 

It’s also one of the biggest challenges for life science in the near future, says the leader of the Human Protein Atlas project, Mathias Uhlén, professor of microbiology at KTH.

Uhlén often compares the 20,000 known proteins in the human body as “Lego pieces”. But they’re no playthings. As head of Science for Life Laboratory at KTH, the professor leads a large team of researchers who examine the structure and function of proteins. The work is multidisciplinary and complex, but the reason behind it is straightforward.

Mathias Uhlén, professor of microbiology and leader of the Human Protein Atlas project,

We have thousands of scientists going into the database each week.

“Ninety eight percent of drugs address proteins,” Uhlén says. “By going through every protein and knowing about the protein, we also know about the disease.”

With 13 million images of tissues throughout the body, the Human Protein Atlas picks up where the Human Genome Project left off – providing researchers around the world with a map of where in the body the 20,000 or so known proteins can be found. Using this open resource, scientists can hunt for “biomarkers” that could make it not only possible to diagnose diseases earlier, but to more accurately predict the impact on the individual patient, reduce suffering and prescribe treatment that will result in the best response.

Put simply, a biomarker is a biological characteristic that reflects a physiological change in the body during or after an illness. A typical example is troponin, which is secreted into the blood when a heart muscle is damaged following a heart attack.

To Uhlén, they are a key to patient well-being and safety. “Biomarkers enable doctors to give the correct diagnosis early one, give the right treatment, avoid serious side effects and eliminate the need for x-rays, invasive procedures and tissue samples,” he says.

The Atlas has already been used by researchers at the Science for Life Laboratory to identify specific markers that could lead to more accurate and earlier diagnosis and treatment of cancer, malaria, ALS, multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy.

And recently, the researchers published an article in Science detailing the first major analysis based on the Human Protein Atlas, including a detailed picture of the proteins that are linked to cancer, the number of proteins present in the bloodstream, and the targets for all approved drugs on the market.

But the Atlas is not just a local resource. “We have thousands of scientists going into the database each week,” he says.

The advances in genomics and proteomics herald what Uhlén refers to as the “age of omics”.

“The challenge of life science is to take the genomics and move into the proteins and the metabolites, and give society different kinds of products,”Uhlén says. “We must move away from the average drug for the average person to individualised drug treatment.”

David Callahan

For more information, contact Tove Alm at tove.alm@scilifelab.se

About the Human Protein Atlas

The Human Protein Atlas project, funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, has been set up to allow for a systematic exploration of the human proteome using Antibody-Based Proteomics.

The KTH research team at Science for Life Lab also last year received a EUR 9.6 million donation from the Erling-Persson Family Foundation.

The program hosts the Human Protein Atlas portal with expression profiles of human proteins in tissues and cells. The main sites are located at AlbaNova and SciLifeLab, KTH - Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, the Rudbeck Laboratory, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden, and Lab Surgpath, Mumbai, India. For more information on the Human Protein Atlas, visit www.proteinatlas.org.