Volkswagen Foundation Grant for Jian Cui

The current COVID-19 pandemic has shown once more how urgently we need suitable tools that enable fast, reliable, and cost-effective drug discovery.

One underexplored, but tantalizing class of drug targets are biomolecular interactions, which form the basis of many key cellular processes. However, current technologies for assessing disease-relevant molecular interactions either do not provide quantitative information, or are limited in terms of sample throughput, and cost-efficiency. These limitations, exacerbated by the disconnect between macroscale proteomics and microscale structural biology. This, significantly hampers the discovery and characterization of new compounds, particularly as many molecular interactions, including those that influence human disease vulnerability and pathogen interactions are relatively weak and/or transient by nature.

Dr. Jian Cui, Principal Investigator at the Helmholtz Pioneer Campus, aims to address these obstacles in a cross-disciplinary project, together with Prof. Michael Sattler (Director, Institute of Structural Biology) and Prof. Pascal Falter-Braun (Director, Institute of Network Biology). This project builds upon optical bio-sensing techniques being developed in the Cui lab. Specifically, their new approach combines two nanoscience technologies in an innovative way: metallic nanoparticles for plasmonic sensing and single-photon-counting interferometry used for high-resolution optical detection (patent pending).

Funded by a prestigious Change of Course Planning Grant by the Volkswagen Foundation, Germany’s largest private research funding foundation, the interdisciplinary team will determine the technical capabilities and limitations of the novel method and assess its viability as a high-throughput platform.  To this end, the scientists will perform rigorous benchmarking against current state-of-the-art techniques in protein interaction biology with resolution, sensitivity, throughput, and overall cost as determining factors.

‘‘We are all thrilled that the Volkswagen Foundation recognizes the potential of this new technology. This grant will foster our collaborative efforts towards developing a much-needed high-throughput platform for both basic research and the acceleration of drug development against devastating diseases", -
states Jian Cui on behalf of the entire research team.

The successful development of this technology will facilitate robust quantification of binding constants and kinetic parameters, provides unprecedented temporal resolution for weak, transient interactions, and enables automation with minimized artifacts at current industry throughput, with potentially several times lower operational costs. The results of this grant will lay the foundation for a broad range of future applications requiring robust quantification of protein-protein interactions.

The Volkswagen Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization and has been funding research projects in all disciplines since 1962. Within the framework of changing funding initiatives, the foundation provides impetus for the development of research and higher education.

The Helmholtz Pi­o­neer Cam­pus is an innovation campus with a startup culture at the Helmholtz Zentrum München. HPC stands for the intelligent fusion of biomedical sciences, engineering and digitization. Teams of top scientific talents from all over the world work together on the development of novel solutions that make a difference in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. HPC aspires the values of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894), a physician and physicist, polymath and science pioneer.