Uncovering the innerworkings of biological and chemical mechanisms is necessary for research breakthroughs—there are no new drugs without understanding how proteins interact with the body and synthesized pharmaceuticals. There would be no COVID-19 vaccine without the knowledge of the structure of the protein and the function of the protein in our bodies. This knowledge derives from and relies on the ever-growing field of proteomics, or the large-scale study of proteins, in which thousands of proteins are characterized in biomedical samples. Though powerful, proteomics can be limited by many factors—sensitivity of the instrumentation (mass spectrometers, for example), and size and complexity of the sample. Professor Alexander Ivanov and his lab are pushing those limits.
Recently, Ivanov was awarded the Outstanding Investigator Award (R35) by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant of over $2 million advocates for experienced researchers taking on long-term projects with potentially impactful results.
Ivanov’s research is nothing short of impactful. “One of the possible research directions is to increase the sensitivity and the depth of overall proteomic profiling to enable characterization of individual single cells picked from either suspension or tissue samples,” said Ivanov about the proposal he submitted for the grant. “Also, possible clinical applications when we just have a few cells available, like a microneedle biopsy for example, or 3-D cultured cell lines in very small formats, organoids, where only a few cells are available.”
While proteomics can change the ways we understand biology by characterizing post-translational modifications and protein-protein or protein-ligand interactions (areas where genomics cannot reach), some common misconceptions is that proteomics lacks quantitative and reliable results and fails to analyze small-scale samples. Ivanov’s research focuses on optimizing the field by creating high sensitivity technologies, modifying sample preparation methods, and developing sophisticated mass spectrometry data acquisition and analysis techniques, all of which leave those misconceptions to the wind.
Ivanov is looking to the future, especially with the many benefits of the Outstanding Investigator Award. “This program provides a lot of flexibility,” said Ivanov. “If we see new opportunities in biomedical research enabled by the technologies we are developing for characterization of limited samples, we can easily expand from the outlined research aims…We can accommodate new milestones and new directions.”
His research will be powerful in expanding the use of proteomics—these techniques can be applied to understanding limited and rare cell populations, such as circulating tumors cells, hematopoietic stem cells, and immune cells buried deep in small biological samples, as his grant project summary details.
Ultimately, Ivanov looks forward to expanding upon his life’s research and continuing his work within the Northeastern community through the aid of the Outstanding Investigator Award. “In my research and my educational efforts, I work a lot with graduate students, undergraduate students, post-docs, research scientists. We have collaborative programs across colleges and within our College of Science. I work with a diverse pool of students and they are an amazing resource here at Northeastern. Students and post-docs make this work possible!”