By Kim Coghill
MCLEAN, Va. - Scientists from around the world studying the human proteome are determined to avoid the battle of wits, personalities and egos they said plagued the Human Genome Project for so many years.
In the infancy of the research, many already are saying scientists involved in the Human Proteome Project need to resolve issues in advance of discoveries about proteins so that this project doesn't end up in a tug of war similar to the genome project.
"The disappointment with the [Human Genome Project] is palpable in the scientific community and in the public," said Norman Anderson, chief scientist at Large Scale Biology Corp. in Germantown and Rockville, Md. Anderson was the keynote speaker Monday at the Human Proteome Project conference held in McLean, Va.
"A lot of work went into selling the space program - and a lot of work went into public relations explaining the genome project," he said. "If there is going to be public support for what we are doing, we have to be able to talk to the public in terms that they understand. It is my view that if we were to explain to a person what we are doing [in researching proteomics], an average person would say, 'I thought you were doing that all along.'"
Anderson, and several hundred other scientists, attended the conference that served as a workshop on proteomics and as the inaugural meeting of HUPO, or the Human Proteome Organization. Officially formed in February, HUPO's purpose is to increase awareness about proteomics and educate the public about the opportunities proteomics offers in the diagnosis, prognosis and therapy of disease. (See BioWorld Today, Feb. 20, 2001.)
"The availability of a blueprint of the human genome has effectively meant proteomics must consider sooner, rather than later, how to tackle the complexity of human beings," said Ian Humphery-Smith, professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Proteomics at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Each gene produces one or more proteins that are modified by the cellular machinery that results in the proteome. The protein products behave differently in different tissues and facilitate separate functions from the same genome. While the genome is fundamental in providing the building blocks of life, it is the proteins that do the work, scientists say.
Humphery-Smith, a founding member of HUPO and a speaker at the conference, told BioWorld Today that in two short months, HUPO has built a council of 24 scientists from around the world who intend to promote proteomics globally. Further, he said, the group has raised $1 billion. "Presently, the money comes after itself. The last few weeks, every two days companies have been getting in touch with us to say they will help."
Among governments, only Korea has stepped forward to offer support at this point, he said. "But this project will be commercially driven and facilitated by governments."
When asked who will own data as research produces it, Humphery-Smith responded, "That is why we are trying to work problems out in advance. I think there is a moral obligation to promote [proteomics] globally and make it more accessible to others to improve and to facilitate government funding."
Proteomics is the study of the function, regulation and expression of proteins in relation to the normal function of the cell and in the initiation of progression of a disease state. Proteomics is of particular importance as it is at the level of protein activity that most diseases are manifested. Consequently, proteomics seeks to correlate directly the involvement of specific proteins and/or protein complexes in a given disease state.
The interest in studying proteomics is certainly not new, Anderson said. In 1980, with the support of some members of the Senate, Anderson said an attempt was made to launch the Human Protein Index Project (HPI) as a serious national objective. However, nearly all supporters of the project lost the election that year, so in 1983 some of the proponents of the HPI proposed that a dual effort involving the complete sequencing of the human genome and a parallel protein project be launched. Of these two, the Human Genome Project was the first to succeed, in part because the basic technology was widely available, Anderson said.
"Proteomics is now in a position to take center stage," Anderson said. "The number of technologies and systems required for a coordinated program for proteomics is rapidly expanding."
Anderson said Large Scale Biology Corp. has assembled the first version of the proteome, which is described in the Jan. 18, 2001, issue of Proteomics.
For more information about HUPO, visit its web site at www.HUPO.org. n