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Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

SUNY decision to drop membership in research center hampers local scientists

New York State has invested about $20 million in the New York Structural Biology Center—NYSBC for short—a major research facility in New York City. The center is operated by a consortium of nine New York State nonprofit institutions. Scientists working for member organizations have access to a buildingful of sophisticated instrumentation for biomedical research, instrumentation that may be too specialized or too expensive for individual institutions.

Until very recently, SUNY was also a member of the NYSBC. Sadly, the deep budget cuts suffered by the SUNY system over the last decade have forced it to give up its affiliation, abandoning access to millions of dollars worth of equipment because of annual dues of a few hundred thousand dollars. What happened?

Briefly, the bailout arose from intense, short-term budgetary pressures. The more complete story reveals the destructive way in which cost-cutting propagated through the SUNY system. Originally the annual membership fee for NYSBC, on the order of $350,000, was paid centrally from Albany. Then these costs were exported to the campuses, since usage among them was very unequal. But of course no money to fund this new mandate was made available. Campuses had difficulty budgeting for usage-based costs. At SUNY Stony Brook in particular, usage burgeoned far beyond what had been anticipated, and the administration there had to embargo use of the center.

When the costs of membership in the center were exported to the campuses, so was the authority to decide whether the membership in the center should be continued. In the end, the campuses could not agree, and the membership was dropped in 2011. Rejoining is expensive. NYSBC by-laws call for a large initiation fee for new members, and SUNY will count as a new member if it tries to return. This is particularly galling given the large contributions that the state has made to the center.

The implications for Western New York are well described by UB Professor of Chemistry Thomas Szyperski, a world leader in the study of protein molecules using NMR. “The NYSBC is one of the largest structural biology centers in the world,” Szyperski says. “SUNY’s membership was a tremendous asset to develop further structural biology within in the SUNY system. SUNY access to the NYSBC not only greatly supported the research of current faculty, but also was also extremely valuable to attract new talented faculty. The bailout certainly represents a missed chance to maintain, or even further strengthen, the scientific infrastructure of the SUNY system.”

So what is structural biology, and exactly what is SUNY losing in giving up on the NYSBC?

Structural biology is devoted to creating three-dimensional pictures of microscopic bits and pieces of living systems. Such pictures lie at the heart of biological discovery, from the development of new drugs to the understanding of how cells carry out their various processes. Famous structural biology studies have involved DNA, virus particles, and the rugged landscape on the surfaces of cells.

However, protein molecules are by far the most common objects studied. They do all the work in living systems, and are therefore often sites at which drugs act. For example, a protein often has a cleft in its surface called the active site, where the most important functions of the molecule take place. By popping a synthetic substance—a drug—into this active site, we can alter the actions of the protein. Aspirin binds in the active site of a protein whose normal job is to synthesize messenger molecules that signal an inflammatory response. By blocking the active site, aspirin reduces the synthesis of this messenger, and inflammation subsides. It is easy to imagine how knowing the detailed structure of the cleft helps design a new drug.

The NYSBC provides state-of-the-art instrumentation for electron microscopy (EM), nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), and x-ray crystallography—all powerful tools for making molecular pictures.

Szyperski had been a major user of the NMR facilities, which yield three-dimensional pictures of smaller proteins. NMR also has a uniquely powerful capability to identify the innate flexibility of each part of a molecule. NMR shares most of its technology with magnetic resonance imaging, used by physicians to probe the interior of our bodies. But NMR is examining objects perhaps a billion times smaller than the organs studied by MRI. Both methods rely on the same physical effect. In certain types of atoms the nucleus—the tiny heavy core at the center of an atom—acts as a micro-magnet with a north and south pole. This is where the “nuclear magnetic” part of the name comes from.

The “resonance” part of the name is harder to explain briefly—or at all, for that matter.

The axis of each of these nuclei is constantly in motion, wobbling in space rather like the axis of a top. The exact speed of the wobble varies from atom to atom, and is influenced by it neighbors. NMR is able to measure the mutual effects of pairs of nuclei, and deduce from this the distance between them. By measuring the distances between thousands of pairs of nuclei in a protein, NMR jocks can tease out a picture of both the protein itself, and its pattern of flexibility.

Loss of access to the NYSBC has damaged Szyperski’s personal research program. ”Our research group participates in the Northeast Structural Genomics Consortium, a large-scale center funded by the National Institutes of Health since 2000,” he explains. “Our access to the powerful NMR machines available at the NYSBC has been critical in for our projects in this Consortium. After the bailout, we were forced to explore other options to gain access to such highest field instrumentation. It was painful.”

SUNY will be paying for a long time for its withdrawal from the center.

Eaton Lattman, PhD, is director of the Hauptman Woodward Research Institute.This column is one of an occasional series exploring news about science and technology in and around Buffalo.

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