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Overview

Maintaining a healthy human body requires an amazing feat of biological teamwork involving many “players” – from individual genes and molecules to entire and cells and organs —which orchestrate the many intricate and interconnected biological pathways within the body.  To date, only a few of these pathways have been characterized.  This is largely because the technologies available for studying the myriad interactions between biological “players” in cells is equivalent to taking a snapshot.  Looking at a moment in time cannot reveal the dynamics of these interactions, which can fluctuate rapidly and vary from cell to cell, but are critical for their function.  More research is needed to advance our understanding of how these pathways:

  • are interconnected to form biological networks
  • function normally to maintain health
  • become disturbed and lead to disease, and
  • can be restored to health if they are disrupted

Solving these gaps in knowledge is key to understanding health and treating disease.  The Common Fund’s Building Blocks, Biological Pathways, and Networks (BBN) Program is designed to address these roadblocks by supporting the development of new technologies and resources to enable researchers to study, in real time, the molecular events that comprise biological pathways and networks in cells.  Technologies and resources developed through this program are expected to catalyze hundreds of studies of normal and disease-related cellular processes.

The program consists of three components:

  • National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways (TCNPs)
  • Metabolomics Technology Development
  • Standards for Proteomics and Assessment of Critical Reagents for Proteomics

National Technology Centers for Networks and Pathways (TCNPs)

The TCNP initiative is designed to address the technological challenges of studying how proteins function normally in biological pathways and networks within cells.  Current approaches to "proteomics" – the study of all proteins in a cell -- involve making snapshots of proteins in a cell at a specific moment or in a specific state.  The transient interactions, and rapid changes in protein structure, activity or location that are needed to maintain healthy biological pathways and networks, and could be targeted in treatment of disease, are literally invisible to the researcher.  

The TCNP program was designed to address technology roadblocks in proteomics by fostering the development of new technologies and  approaches for studying, in real time, the actions and interactions of proteins within cells.  The program supports three independent research centers that cooperate in a networked national effort to develop new analytical technologies, methods, reagents, and infrastructure to accelerate the characterization of complex biochemical pathways and networks of protein interactions. They collaborate with biomedical researchers through several mechanisms, providing a synergistic push-pull between technological advancement and biomedical problem solving. The centers ensure broad access to the technologies, methods, and reagents they develop, and provide interdisciplinary academic and peer training for biomedical researchers.  Each center integrates biological, technological, and informatics capabilities, but each focuses on different technologies and systems, with corresponding strengths. Cooperation among the centers allows them to achieve a broader scope of research than would be possible if they functioned independently. 

For more information on the TCNPs, contact Douglas Sheeley, Ph.D., National Center for Research Resources, (301) 594-9762,  sheeleyd@mail.nih.gov.

Metabolomics Technology Development

The Metabolomics Technology Development initiative is focused on the development and refinement of novel technologies to accelerate the study of metabolites – that is, the carbohydrates, lipids, amino acids, and other metabolites – that function in biological pathways and networks in cells. The technologies are intended to address current roadblocks to studying metabolite levels, actions and interactions within a single cell or even a specific part of a single cell change over time and from cell to cell in both health and disease. This initiative was supported initially through the Common Fund, and has transitioned to the Institutes for support.

As part of this effort, the NIH collaborated with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to develop Metabolites in Human Plasma (SRM 1950), a human plasma pool designed to represent the normal complement of metabolites in a cell – the so called “metabolome.”  This “standard reference material” is intended to provide researchers with a way to evaluate and compare new technologies for measuring cellular metabolites and to improve the reproducibility of measurements within and across technologies.

For more information on the Metabolomics Technology Development initiative, contact Arthur Castle, Ph.D., National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, (301) 594-7719, castlea@mail.nih.gov.

Standards for Proteomics and Assessment of Critical Reagents for Proteomics

Under this sub-initiative, NIH hosted a workshop on Standards in Proteomics involving experts in analysis, processing, and validation of proteomics data. Workshop participants identified a database for mass spectrometric data as an essential need of the community.For additional information on the meeting...

To follow on this recommendation, the Common Fund supported the development of the "Peptidome" database, hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Peptidome is a public repository that archives and freely distributes tandem mass spectrometry peptide and protein identification data generated by the scientific community. Several layers of data are captured to promote understanding of the experiment and analysis of the underlying data.

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