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University's New Research Magnet May Help Unlock Molecular Mysteries

11 October 2012 No Comment

UM’s 950 MHz spectrometer is one of only two in the United States (Photo by Tom Jemski).


A large, two-story light gray canister on three legs takes up a corner of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) lab at the School of Medicine. Inside this newly installed 950 MHz spectrometer is one of the world’s most powerful research magnets—one of only two 950 megahertz (MHz) NMR magnets in the United States and the only one at a U.S. academic institution.

Scientists use NMR spectroscopy to determine the structure of organic compounds by placing energy-charged molecules into a magnetic field, exposing them to radio waves and analyzing how the atomic nuclei within the molecules behave.

“This instrument is just phenomenal, far better than we anticipated. We’re already seeing clear-cut interactions between proteins that we couldn’t see with our 800 MHz magnet,” says David Weber, PhD, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the School of Medicine. His laboratory is developing small-molecule inhibitors geared to a family of calcium-binding proteins, including one that is being tested in a clinical study at the University of Maryland Marlene and Stewart Greenebaum Cancer Center as a possible treatment for melanoma.

Weber, director of the University’s Center for Biomolecular Therapeutics and associate director of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research, was instrumental in bringing the powerful magnet to the University.

David Weber

The “super magnet,” which resembles R2-D2 of Star Wars fame, was purchased in 2010 with a $7.9 million federal grant to the University, with Weber as the principal investigator. This campus partnered with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and University of Maryland, College Park on the grant application. After months of testing and fine-tuning the instrument, scientists are starting to make full use of the magnet.

The magnet and spectrometer will be shared equally by scientists at the three University of Maryland campuses and will be available to molecular biologists, biochemists, and other researchers throughout the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The 8-ton, 22.3 Tesla magnet—so powerful that it could lift 50 cars—produces a supercharged magnetic field that will enable scientists to investigate the 3-D structure of biological molecules and study their interaction with the highest degree of resolution. Armed with this data, they may be able to unlock the mysteries of many molecules and develop new agents to treat cancer, AIDS, and other diseases.

“Being able to observe molecules at the atomic level eliminates a great deal of guessing when you’re conducting complicated molecular experiments. With this magnet, we have a much better ability to look at larger molecules and protein complexes. It’s like working in a room with the lights on,” Weber says.

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