2011 Annual Report: Algorithm Can Predict Shape of Proteins, Speeding Basic Cancer Research

To understand how a particular protein functions or how it might contribute to disease, scientists need to investigate its three-dimensional structure, or shape, in detail. This type of information is normally obtained through complex and time-consuming lab experiments — for example, using a method called x-ray crystallography. For most proteins in our cells, such experiments have not yet been done, and the shapes remain unknown.

In December, a team of researchers made a breakthrough toward developing a computer method to predict a protein’s shape based on its genetic sequence. The research team — led by scientists from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Harvard Medical School — was able to rapidly gain detailed information about protein structure using genetic information alone.

The mathematical-physical method uses an algorithm that extracts clues about the way protein shapes have evolved over thousands or millions of years. Complementary to traditional methods of protein structure analysis, it could speed up basic research on cancer and other diseases and lead to more-effective strategies for drug design.