October 18, 2017
2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Intelligent Pharma wants to congratulate Jacques Dubochet (University of Lausanne), Joachim Frank (Columbia University) and Richard Henderson (University of Cambridge UK) for receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2017. They were awarded by the Swedish Academy “for developing cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”. The scientists will equally share the approximately $1.11 million prize.

High-resolution structure determination of biomolecules is of crucial importance for understanding the most important machinery of life, e.g. proteins, and for helping us and other scientists developing drugs by elucidating biomolecule interactions.

Most proteins structures have been solved by more traditional approaches such as X-ray crystallography, electron crystallography and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). Although very valuable, these methods have limitations: the sample needs to be a well-ordered crystal to diffract X-ray to high-resolution and many membrane proteins are relatively unstable after purification with detergents.

By using the awarded methodology, the proteins don't need to be crystallised since the sample receives a cryogenic treatment. By freezing the samples to liquid nitrogen temperature, they are protected from the electrons beam's radiation and from dehydration in the electron microscope's vacuum chamber. On the other hand, this treatment assures the biological molecules to remain in their native conformation. 

The success of the cryo-EM is the result of collaborations and synergies between multiple groups of scientists and methodologies, which is often the case in science, specially in technologies awarded with the Nobel Prize. In the '70, Prof. Henderson was a pioneer in using electron microscopy to determine a 3-D image of a biological molecule at atomic level. In the '80, Prof. Frank developed image-processing technologies for converting 2-D electron microscopy pictures into 3-D structures. In the meanwhile, Prof. Dubochet was investigating how to rapidly freeze the biological molecules without changing their natural shape.

In order to make this technique more accessible, advancements in the development of direct electron detectors and improvements in data managing technologies are essential. Also for the collection and reconstruction of thousands of images, very powerful computers are needed.

We at Intelligent Pharma believe that this technology significantly contributes to our daily work since improved structure determination of biological molecules enables us to perform a more precise drug design process.

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