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Oct. 11, 2019

MSU scientist studying treatments for cancer lands NSF Early CAREER Award

Michigan State University chemist Liangliang Sun has received a 5-year, $670,000 National Science Foundation, or NSF, Early CAREER Award to develop a novel mass spectrometry-based analytical method to identify and to quantify protein molecules that cannot currently be detected in biological samples. 

Cellular proteins do most of the work in cells. Consequently, identifying and quantifying protein molecules in cells at a global scale, called proteomics, can have major scientific implications, allowing scientists to determine which proteins particular cells are using for growth and development at specific times. Such knowledge could unlock treatments for cancer or greater understanding of cellular growth and development.

“Proteomics is a very useful tool to identify and quantify thousands of proteins in cells under different conditions,” said Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the MSU College of Natural Science. “But the technology is not perfect because it requires a large quantity of cells—and cellular material is often limited. 

“For example,” he continued. “In cancer cells, where understanding cellular heterogeneity within a tumor is critical and often requires analyzing cells one by one, the current proteomic technology is not sensitive enough to examine the proteome-level heterogeneity of single cells within a tumor.” 

Sun estimates that the first three years of the award will be used to develop and to evaluate the MS-based technology. The new technique will provide at least 100-times greater sensitivity for protein identification. The highly sensitive MS-based analytical method will advance fundamental research involving mass-limited protein analyses in many areas of biology, such as developmental biology, cancer biology, and neuroscience. 

Sun will then use the remaining two years to advance his research on embryogenesis using the new, more sensitive technology with zebrafish as the model organism to determine the abundance changes of chromatin-associated proteins (e.g., transcription factors) in zebrafish embryos during early embryogenesis, specifically the maternal-to-zygotic transition. Sun will build the first and largest quantitative proteomic dataset of chromatin-associated proteins in vertebrate embryos. 

Finally, the project will provide a great opportunity to train the next generation of graduate students for multidisciplinary scientific research. 

“We want students to develop a better understanding of these techniques through the lab module,” Sun said. 

Sun will introduce the basic principles of separation, mass spectrometry and proteomics during the fall semester. He will then build a lab module for the spring semester that allows 30 to 40 senior undergraduate students enrolled in Chemistry 435 to work on a specific proteomic project for several weeks, using the modern separation and mass spectrometry instrumentation to answer a simple biology question. 

“The hope is that this unique lab module will nurture their interest in science, prompt active learning and encourage them to partake in science careers,” Sun said. “We’re also planning a similar program for local underrepresented high school students each summer.” 

The hands-on projects will improve students’ educational experiences, giving the next generation a better understanding of laboratory research during their undergraduate and even high school years.

“The education part is really enjoyable for me,” Sun said. “We will start the education activities during the project’s first year and then keep them going, learning continuously from student feedback.”

By: Val Osowski