Novo Nordisk owner puts up $43M to analyze proteins at a particle accelerator

MAX IV Laboratory (David Castor)

Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded the University of Lund $43 million to build and run a platform for analyzing protein structures. The platform will use a narrow, intense X-ray beam produced at a particle accelerator to perform the structural analysis. 

The ability to visualize the structure of proteins has opened up new drug discovery opportunities in recent decades but there remain limitations to what researchers can see and under what conditions. Novo Nordisk Foundation, the organization that owns a controlling interest in Novo Nordisk, wants to chip away at these limitations by making money available to researchers in Sweden.

Novo Nordisk Foundation’s grant will support the construction of technology to generate MicroMAX X-ray beamlines at the MAX IV particle accelerator in Sweden. The grant covers the four years it is expected to take to build MicroMAX and the first decade of its use.

In some regards, MicroMAX is in keeping with how protein structures are analyzed today. The new and established approaches both build pictures of protein structures by detecting how X-rays scatter when they come into contact with a protein crystal. But the nature of the X-rays generated at MAX IV will set it apart from how proteins are traditionally analyzed.

MicroMAX will work by generating an X-ray beam with a diameter of about one-fiftieth that of a human hair. This beam should enable researchers to visualize the structure of small protein crystals. Currently, the ability to grow large crystals of a protein is essential to structure analysis. MicroMAX is set to lessen the importance of crystal size and thereby reveal the structures of more proteins. 

Researchers envision other benefits, too. 

“It will enable scientists to study proteins at room temperature and in a near-native environment, which is a fundamental step forward in understanding how proteins function in our bodies,” Christoph Quitmann, director of the MAX IV Laboratory, said in a statement.