Selective Controlled Femtosecond Laser-Induced Chemical Reactions in Peptide Systems
For many with food allergies, eating can become synonymous with fastidious checking of long ingredient lists and constant fear of a severe reaction. Three MU researchers are working to improve the lives of food allergy sufferers by using lasers to zap the pesky proteins that cause reactions.
Two years ago, Bond Life Sciences Center investigator Jay Thelen invented a fast, efficient and accurate method for measuring allergens in peanuts, soybeans and tree nuts. Ever since, seed and food companies have awarded him with a stream of contracts for testing the safety of new products.
In 2011, Mizzou Advantage awarded a grant to Thelen and two of his colleagues, Dmitry Korkin, assistant professor in computer science, and Vitaly Gruzdev, assistant research professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, to help launch new projects and research in the field of allergen identification.
“Proteins in some seeds are allergenic because they can’t be broken down in the gut,” Thelen said. “But a laser can, in principle, do a job that digestive systems can’t, which is to break down proteins into smaller pieces that the gut digestive enzymes can further process.”
The research uses “proteomics,” which is the large-scale study of proteins in an organism. Researchers examine the metabolic differences among oil-producing seed crops, such as soybean and canola, which consist primarily of protein and oil, respectively. His lab focuses on understanding the mechanisms controlling the final composition of seeds.
Using Thelen’s past research on identifying the allergenic proteins, it may be possible to pinpoint their location in food and target those proteins with a laser. The result? Food that is actually less allergenic than before it was treated.
Developing a prototype
With the help of the Mizzou Advantage funding, the three collaborators are developing plans to build a device that will emit short-burst laser pulses of a specific wavelength to single out proteins in seeds. These precisely controlled femtosecond laser pulses are expected to trigger chemical reactions that will selectively break down proteins into smaller peptides.
“If it works, peanuts, for example, could pass through a tuned laser, to break up some of the more recalcitrant proteins. It could be an inexpensive approach to make the proteins, and hence the seed, less allergenic,” Thelen said.
Partnering with industry
Thelen led a large-scale investigation into allergens in the soybean, working in cooperation with the Health and Environmental Sciences Institute in Washington, D.C. He successfully developed better testing procedures; his lab now provides analytical tools and data for industry partners to help them determine if new genetically-modified soybeans have levels of allergens similar to those found in natural soybean varieties.
He is patenting one testing method that efficiently and accurately determines quantities of allergens from soybeans and peanuts. With four to five contracts per year, demand for the service is to the point that he is developing a startup company, PepProAnalytics, to fulfill testing contracts.
The new research, combined with the opportunities for new business partners, puts Mizzou on the forefront on innovations in the field of proteomics and allergy research.
This interdisciplinary project brings together three faculty members from three departments at MU to join their expertise in proof-of-principle research proposal to create the basis of a novel technology. Once proof-of-concept has been established this research has an exceptional potential for long-term external support from NIH, USDA and other grant-making institutions. This will significantly elevate the stature and impact of MU in several promising research areas.