Professor Peter Nemes, PhD ’09, returned to his alma mater with a simple goal: to better human health. Now two years later—and with the help of a recent grant—he is on the path to do just that and, in the process, pioneer a new frontier in neuroscience.
As a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, Nemes was introduced to analytical neuroscience which uses advanced technology to study the inner workings of the brain at unprecedented resolution: single neuron activity. There, he developed new instruments to measure small molecules in neurons. Nemes then used these new instruments to classify neurons not based on morphology or location in the brain but on their native chemistry, a fundamentally new concept.
As a member of GW’s Department of Chemistry faculty in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, Nemes has focused his research on protein molecules that play a critical role in cell health and function. By analyzing proteins—like those activated during neuron development—Nemes can meticulously investigate normal cells as well as the onset of disease.
But how do you observe the activity of proteins in single cells? Current technology like mass spectrometry—a measurement technique that converts chemicals into ions—can only analyze millions of cells in order to detect proteins, rather than investigate the components of a single cell.
Nemes’s answer: build a new instrument based on high resolution mass spectrometry.
With Sally A. Moody—a professor of anatomy and regenerative biology in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS)—Nemes developed a prototype instrument that can measure thousands of different proteins in a single giant embryonic cell. Based on this work, which was initially funded by the GW Columbian College Facilitating Funds (CCFF), Nemes and Moody recently received an award by the National Science Foundation to extend the technology to basic questions in cell and developmental biology.
Nemes plans to build upon this prototype to develop a next-generation tool capable of analyzing the proteins expressed by a single neuron, which contains amounts of protein approximately 1,000-100,000 times smaller than the giant embryonic cell. This novel technology could allow researchers to better understand intricate molecular processes that underlie neurodevelopmental disorders like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism. In turn, the new knowledge gained from using this instrument could help improve how we treat these complex disorders at various stages of their development.
“I envision this instrument to be a resource for neuroscience and the wider scientific community,” Nemes says. “It’s a great opportunity to continue our work in interdisciplinary sciences, specifically between our chemistry department and the GW Institute for Neuroscience.”
Nemes will continue to collaborate with Professor Moody as well as Anthony LaMantia, the director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience, and Chiara Manzini, an assistant professor of pharmacology and physiology at SMHS. Earlier in 2015, Nemes and Manzini received the Dean’s Interdisciplinary Collaboration Excellence Award from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to utilize new analytical technology for developmental disease research, paving the way for translational research using the new instrument.
“I’m fortunate to have outstanding support and collaborators at GW,” says Nemes. “Together, we can engage in research that is really pushing the boundaries in both instrument development and health.”
But that wasn’t the only support Nemes received: his innovation caught the eye of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation who named Nemes a 2015 Beckman Young Investigator. The honor is reserved for the most promising young faculty members in the chemical and life sciences and comes with a $750,000 grant over the next four years.
“It’s a great honor and privilege to be a Beckman Young Investigator,” says Nemes, who is one of just eight researchers to receive the award this year. “This is a fantastic opportunity to develop a new type of instrumentation that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.”
Nemes’s system has the potential to transform modern neuroscience, elucidating the intricacies of our brain and the pathways for disease, and he credits much of his success to the hard work of his research group as well as the state-of-the-art research environment and collaborations made possible by GW’s Science and Engineering Hall (SEH).
“This level of cutting-edge research would not be possible without the generosity of many GW alumni and donors to SEH,” Nemes adds. “Collaboration and the availability of new instruments have always shaped science, and I hope this high end instrumentation we develop will grow our understanding of human health.”
Unlocking the biology of the mind is proving to be one of our greatest scientific challenges, but with support from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation and interdisciplinary collaborators across GW, it’s possible Nemes has the key.