Molecular Origami: Protein Engineering Emerges to Fight Disease

From Scientific American:

So he and a team here at the University of Washington spend their days designing intricately folded chains of amino acids to create molecules that do not exist in nature. The goal: Create a protein that might bind to a virus like the flu and stop it from infecting cells. Or one that could break up gluten, effectively taming gluten allergies.

“You could imagine a future where we’re able to design an essentially unlimited number of new proteins that basically are the drugs of the future, the vaccines of the future,” said David Baker, a biochemist who leads the university’s Institute for Protein Design.

Naturally, caveats abound.

For one, it’s unclear if our immune systems will accept new proteins they’ve never seen before. They could cause new allergies. The body could reject them. Or they could turn out not to work in real life, even if they look good on a computer screen. And in practical terms, it will likely be years before any of these newly designed proteins make their way to our medicine cabinets.

“Like with any drug, you always have to experimentally test it before you stick it into a person,” Baker said.

Yang Zhang, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Michigan, is also engineering proteins. He said Baker’s work is promising, but turning a theoretical protein into a functional therapeutic will take time because the protein will effectively be interacting with an entire system, not just the target it is intended for.

“It is a very complicated process for a drug. You need to consider not only these interactions, you also need to consider the side effects, or the interaction with the environment, and many other protein pathways,” he said.

On a summer afternoon, Chevalier demonstrated the principle of protein folding to a group of students visiting the lab by folding and unfolding an origami cup. …

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