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UNC’s Structural Biology Core Facilities Help Move Research Forward

For a laboratory to synthesize proteins -- the cell’s key movers and shakers – it takes time, expertise, and equipment. Some laboratories choose to invest in their own space to generate home-baked proteins, whereas others outsource the job to commercial companies that charge a premium for the desired experimental ingredient.

But a third option exists at UNC that many researchers might not know about – the Antibody and the Protein Expression and Purification Core Facilities in the Center for Structural Biology (CSB). Michael Miley, PhD, director of both core facilities, says these on-site entities can produce milligram amounts of high quality, purified proteins at a fraction of what commercial entities charge.

“Because these are recharge facilities, we are not designed to make money,” says Miley. “If you save people money on one end then they can spend it on other things, like expanding their ability to test new ideas and do experiments.”

The Protein Expression and Purification Core Facility is designed to be the “front-end” interface to traditional structural biology investigations like X-ray crystallography and NMR spectroscopy, says Mischa Machius, PhD, director of the Center for Structural Biology, but the proteins it generates could be used to explore practically any area of biomedical research. For example, Miley’s group has produced a protein called Gas6 that is needed to facilitate a contract between Stephen Frye’s Center for Integrative Chemical Biology and Drug Discovery and a commercial partner of the National Cancer Institute.

While Miley recognizes the value of the high quality proteins his facility generates, he says the facility is capable of much more.

“We want to be a partner in research – essentially, a collaborator for hire,” says Miley. “If you need help producing a protein we can do it ourselves, we can consult with you to help you optimize what you are doing, or we can work together in a collaborative model, where people will come in and treat the facility like their own lab space. In that case I get tied in to designing their experiments, helping them chart their course, rather than being a widget factory that doesn’t get involved in their science.”

When Miley’s team in the Antibody Core Facility is contracted, they can produce the protein antigen, handle all the mouse work, develop a high titer immune response, help the contracting lab make sure their assay is robust, and ultimately generate a monoclonal antibody that works for the clients specialized needs. A lot of third party companies don’t provide that kind of customized service.

“They don’t care if it ends up working in your lab, in your hands, with your assay,” says Miley. “So you don’t always end up getting what you wanted. A lot of people use those companies first, aren’t happy, and then call us.”

One scientist who has called Miley is Nancy DeMore, MD, founder of Enci Therapeutics, a UNC spinoff developing new medicines to block the progression of tumors. DeMore discovered that a protein called SFRP2 plays a role in the development of tumor-supporting blood vessels during cancer development.

“Working with the Antibody Core Facility we were able to develop a therapeutic monoclonal antibody that inhibits tumor growth in pre-clinical models,” says DeMore. “The core facility worked closely with us on this project and acted as a "team member".”

The Protein Expression and Purification Core Facility and the Antibody Core Facility are just two of over 60 core facilities at UNC offering a wide range of services to the research community, including cutting edge technologies, high end instrumentation, technical support, and education.

To learn more about the Core facilities in the Center for Structural Biology at UNC, please contact Mischa Machius, PhD at 919-843-4485 and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Michael Miley, PhD at 919-843-7174 and This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit the Center for Structural Biology, Protein Expression and Purification Core Facility and Antibody Core Facility websites.

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Michelle Maclay, Communications Director