Life Sciences Symposium explores the power of protein engineering

David H. Sherman, Ph.D.

Inside every living cell, proteins are busy protecting the body against foreign invaders, catalyzing chemical reactions, transmitting signals across cells and organs, coordinating essential biological processes and basically holding the cell together. 

For decades, scientists have probed the power of proteins to determine how their various functions could be optimized for new uses — from treating human diseases to improving energy usage and environmental sustainability — through biological design and protein engineering.

“There’s been a lot of work to bring protein engineering into reality in drug discovery, biocatalysis and many other areas,” says David H. Sherman, Ph.D., professor at the University of Michigan Life Sciences Institute, College of Pharmacy and Medical School. “And now we’re starting to see the clear fruits of that labor. We’re really in a particularly productive era in protein engineering and design, with amazing promise for the future.”

That’s why the topic of this year’s Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium is so timely, Sherman says. The symposium will bring pioneers in the field to the University of Michigan to discuss the new technologies and applications that are advancing the role of protein engineering across scientific disciplines.

“The range of speakers we have this year highlights the enormous impact of protein engineering — from increasing our understanding of proteins’ myriad essential functions to promoting drug discovery and development,” says Sherman, who chaired this year’s symposium planning committee.

This year’s speakers include:

  • Donald Hilvert, Ph.D. professor of chemistry and applied biosciences at ETH Zürich, whose lab is developing strategies to engineer enzymes with customized properties, including extending enzymes’ abilities to catalyze reactions beyond their conventional biological restraints.
  • Amy E. Keating, Ph.D., professor of biology and biological engineering at MIT, who uses her background in chemistry and physics to improve understanding of how proteins interact, to determine how those interactions can be manipulated and to design new proteins with novel interaction properties.
  • Dan Tawfik, Ph.D., professor of biomolecular sciences as the Weizmann Institute of Science, whose lab has developed experimental systems to reproduce real-time protein evolution in the lab. Tawfik’s research has shed light on how the very first proteins emerged and evolved, and is leading to the development of tailor-made enzymes with important potential uses. 
  • Alice Y. Ting, Ph.D., professor of genetics, biology, and chemistry at Stanford University, whose lab develops new molecular technologies to study proteins and signaling within living cells and organisms. The FLARE technique, developed with then-postdoc and now LSI faculty member Wenjing Wang, for example, enables researchers to capture a clearer picture of how large groups of neurons within a mouse’s brain responds during a particular activity.
  • James A. Wells, Ph.D., professor of pharmaceutical chemistry, University of California, San Francisco, who pioneered the development of new technologies for engineering proteins to target catalytic, allosteric, and protein-protein interaction sites for therapeutic purposes. His lab at UCSF is now using protein and antibody engineering to understand and disrupt signaling processes associated with human disease.
  • Huimin Zhao, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, biochemistry, biophysics and bioengineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose graduate research contributed to the directed evolution methods that won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Zhao’s current research program focuses on the development and applications of synthetic biology tools to address challenges in health, energy, and sustainability.

The 2019 Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium will take place from 8:45 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. on September 25 in Forum Hall, Palmer Commons. In addition to the invited speakers, the symposium will feature a poster session of protein engineering research taking place around U-M. The event is free and open to the public. More information and a detailed schedule are available online.

About the Annual Symposium

Now in its 18th year, the annual LSI symposium continues to represent the institute’s most important values: excellence in science, investment in high-impact research, and especially the synergy that happens when top scientists from a range of fields meet and share their work around a common theme.

In 2016, the annual LSI symposium was named the Saltiel Life Sciences Symposium thanks to an endowment made possible by the generous support of the LSI’s faculty, Leadership Council, Scientific Advisory Board and friends. The name recognizes the leadership and scientific contributions made by former LSI Director Alan R. Saltiel during his 13-year tenure.

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