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Cryo-electron microscopy, a technology that won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2017, enables scientists to make detailed images of subjects such as proteins, viruses and DNA. (reewungjunerr/Adobe Stock)

Getting it right under the high-tech microscope

Research project uses Nobel-winning technology to help health care

Jan. 29, 2024

Seneca Applied Research and Neoglacia Inc., a company that builds equipment to freeze biological samples, recently teamed up to help the health-care sector by finessing a process to capture detailed images of proteins.

The research project aims to provide Neoglacia with purified proteins to be imaged by cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), a technology that won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2017. At the time, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the prize, said cryo-EM “moved biochemistry into a new era.”

However, sample preparation for the imaging is extremely difficult, time-consuming and involves a skill set that only a few, highly qualified researchers possess. The Seneca-Neoglacia project will help close this gap by further developing sample prep technology that will enable cryo-EM to be performed by more labs, worldwide.

Dr. Siobhan Carroll and Dr. Frank Merante
Dr. Siobhan Carroll and Dr. Frank Merante, Co-Principal Investigators, Seneca Applied Research, are working to prepare protein samples for cryo-electron microscopy.

“Seneca’s role is to provide very clear proteins … that will maintain a structure as close to the native structure that you’d find in a body or cell,” said Dr. Frank Merante, Professor, School of Biological Sciences & Applied Chemistry, and the Co-Principal Investigator for the first phase of the project.

Neoglacia then uses its equipment to freeze the sample in a reproducible and precise manner and a third party uses cryo-EM to take an image of the protein. The goal of the research project is to refine the protein preparation to get the best possible images.

“The higher the quality of the protein that goes in, the higher the quality of the images,” said Dr. Merante.

Overall, it’s a process of trial and error both for Seneca’s biologists and Neoglacia’s engineers working on the equipment that freezes the proteins.

But it’s timely and important work, said Ernest Earon, CEO of Neoglacia, which is based in Markham, about 30 kilometres north of Toronto.

“Cryo-EM is really coming into a golden age right now and the key targets for that are definitely medical, pharmaceutical, therapeutics and vaccines,” Mr. Earon said, noting that the first 3D model of the COVID-19 spike protein was made thanks to cryo-EM technology.

“We are trying to address a bottleneck in the workflow for cryo-EM, which is to be able to reliably and repeatedly produce samples very, very well.

“Seneca has the expertise, the capabilities and the resources to work with us and produce these samples,” he said.

Dr. Merante oversaw the first phase of research, from January to April 2023 and Dr. Siobhan Carroll, Co-Principal Investigator, Seneca Applied Research, is overseeing the second phase, which started in November and runs through to February 2024.

Alexia Cid Polanco and Paria Kamalzadeh, both of whom graduated from the three-year Biotechnology – Advanced diploma program in the spring, have been research assistants throughout the project.

“It’s a great opportunity for the research assistants to apply what they learned in the lab in a real-world setting,” Dr. Merante said.

Steinland Nerisma
Steinland Nerisma, Research and Development Scientist, Neoglacia, is working on the project with Seneca Polytechnic.

Steinland Nerisma, a Research and Development Scientist with Neoglacia, who has been working on the project said it’s a win-win situation.

“It’s been very informative and that’s what you want,” Ms. Nerisma said.

“I really do love the team,” she said. “I feel Seneca is very inspired and driven to make a difference.”