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Elisar Barbar in Paris, France

High-powered nuclear magnetic resonance instrument to draw regional, national and international scientists to OSU

By Srila Nayak

Elisar Barbar, photo credit: Bruker BioSpin Corporation

Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics Professor Elisar Barbar and her team were recently awarded $1.3 million by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and another $504,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust for a high-end Macromolecular Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instrument. OSU contributed the remaining $600,000.

While Barbar and her team initially applied for funding for a 700 MHz NMR, additional support from NIH and the Murdock Charitable Trust have made it possible for Oregon State to now purchase an 800 MHz NMR, which is the highest field instrument in the state of Oregon.

While Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in medicine is the most familiar application of NMR, this extremely powerful research tool has many significant uses in chemistry, biochemistry and other sciences. It can be employed to collect data from important biomolecules, such as proteins, nucleic acids and metabolites, to study their physiological functions in the human body.

Barbar commended scientists from area universities and colleges for working assiduously with her team on various stages of the proposal to the NIH and the Murdock Charitable Trust.

“It has been a long journey from when we sent the first proposal for the NMR in 2008. I am looking forward to having this powerful capability on campus,” said Barbar.

“It will really change the face of OSU and the whole region.” –Elisar Barbar

The 800 MHz NMR will be widely used by scientists both within and beyond OSU, from other colleges and universities in Oregon. The NMR, which will be installed in February 2016, will be the only one of its kind in the region. The research potential and benefits of having NMR at OSU are enormous as it will propel and galvanize significant research on protein folding, gene discovery and biochemical structural informatics that can be used in the treatments of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and cancer. The NMR facility at OSU is poised to become a regional center for open use by academic researchers throughout the Oregon community.

Barbar, who won the 2014 Milton Harris Award for exceptional achievement in basic research, is a pioneer and world-renowned expert on structural and biophysical studies of molecular assemblies of intrinsically disordered proteins. The award for the NMR marks the successful culmination of Barbar’s three-year effort to bring this high-end instrumentation proposal to fruition with support from the campus-wide NMR steering committee of researchers from Oregon State, University of Oregon, Oregon Health and Science University, Portland State University and Lewis & Clark College.

Sastry G. Pantula, dean of the College of Science at OSU, emphasized the NMR capability at OSU demonstrates the university’s commitment to enhancing excellent scientific research and human health in Oregon and beyond.

“I am very proud of Elisar Barbar for her pioneering role in bringing the NMR instrumentation to campus,” said Pantula.

“I am also very grateful to Martha Coleman at the OSU Foundation, the Murdock Charitable Trust, the OSU Research Office and many units across campus for their support. I greatly appreciate the behind-the-scenes work of our Associate Dean Doug Keszler to make the upgrade to 800MHz possible.”

Biochemistry & Biophysics Assistant Professor Afua Nyarko also contributed to the arrival of the new NMR by designating some of her start up funds for the instrumentation. Nyarko’s research on a special class of proteins linked to tumor formation extensively utilizes NMR solution structure and other biophysical techniques to investigate effective inhibition.

Nearly three years ago when a failing console on OSU’s 600 MHz NMR was declared non-repairable, researchers evaluated several solutions. In the end, they decided to pursue a state-of-the-art and more powerful 700 MHz instrument rather than invest $300,000 in a new console for the aging instrument. Barbar led the charge to secure funding for the new protein-dedicated NMR, submitting a $1.3M major instrument proposal to NIH in the fall 2013.

In light of the NMR’s vast capabilities and significance across multidisciplinary areas of science, a campus wide collation committed significant matching funds both for the original proposal as well as for the recent proposal for the enhanced 800MHz NMR, including the OSU Office of Research, the Colleges of Science, Pharmacy and Agricultural Science, the Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Biophysics as well as the Environmental Health Sciences Center and the Center for Genome Research & Biocomputing.

Although NIH favorably reviewed the proposal, a funding decision stalled for a year. Undaunted and encouraged by a strong NIH score on her proposal, Barbar pursued additional matching funds from the Murdock Charitable Trust.

NIH finally approved funding for the High End Instrumentation proposal in early 2015. The reviewers were particularly impressed by the beneficial impact the instrumentation would have on the research community throughout Oregon. They also praised Barbar for her leadership: “She is highly productive and has established an international reputation in the NMR community for studying challenging proteins that contain regions of intrinsic disorder,” wrote a reviewer.

Numerous active research projects at OSU will utilize the NMR. Barbar’s lab employs NMR to determine the three-dimensional structure of individual subunits of the motor protein dynein with the objectives of finding new methods for controlling certain diseases and advancing our fundamental understanding of protein-protein interactions, molecular recognition and the assembly of biologically important protein complexes.

Currently there is not a single high field instrument that is dedicated to protein work at Oregon State University or in the whole state of Oregon. The proposed high-field 800MHz NMR instrument will support research aimed at understanding proteins and macromolecular assemblies involved in cellular trafficking, cataractous ageing of the eye, and enzyme mechanisms and catalysis. Knowledge of high-resolution structures and dynamics of these macromolecular systems will guide the design of novel therapeutics.

The NMR will enhance graduate and undergraduate education and career opportunities in the biological sciences at OSU as students will learn to effectively utilize the equipment to conduct research at the interface of structural biology and cell biology.