John R. Engen, the James L. Waters chair in analytical chemistry and distinguished professor of chemistry and chemical biology, has received the Excellence in Research and Creative Activity Award for his contributions to the field of mass spectrometry, a technique used to measure the weight and structure of molecules.
Engen uses mass spectrometry to study proteins, and specifically, how they change shape in reaction to drugs or disease. Engen’s lab collaborates with numerous pharmaceutical companies and academic research labs to identify the characteristics of specific proteins, an integral step in determining the cause of a disease or the way a drug will work, for example.
“Could you store this therapeutic protein in a freezer for six months, and will it be exactly the same when you take it out as when you put it in? These are the kinds of questions we can answer,” Engen says.
Insulin is one example of a protein-based drug that could be studied using mass spectrometry. This technique could be used to test the drug before it goes into a patient to ensure the proteins haven’t changed shape since the drug was manufactured.
Additionally, Engen and his team study how proteins signal when cells should die, an important process for understanding cancer cells that continue living despite the organism’s best interest. Their research also focuses on how proteins are involved in cell communication, valuable information for pharmaceutical manufacturers who want to stop cell communication using certain drugs.
Since 2007, Engen’s lab has been partnered with the Waters Corporation, a company that manufactures mass spectrometry tools. In addition to doing research with other labs and pharmaceutical companies, Engen and his team help educate researchers on how to use some of the Waters Corporation’s instruments.
“I’ve been doing this type of research for 25 years,” says Engen, who would be considered one of the pioneering researchers in his specific field, which really began gaining traction about a decade ago when commercial availability of mass spectrometry tools increased.
“It’s a whole different landscape now,” he says, referring to the study of proteins using mass spectrometry. “We’ve been influential in shaping that.”
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