Her invention of the NEOtrap in Delft and her move to Wageningen University & Research have provided new opportunities for Assistant Professor Sonja Schmid. She studies the molecular basis of proteins in her NanoDynamicsLab within the Biophysics group in Wageningen: “With the NEOtrap, we have a whole new way of researching proteins. This enables a multitude of future solutions and applications, such as curing brain diseases in the long-term, as well as more sustainable crop production or combating bacterial resistance. We hope to inspire scientists around the world to use the NEOtrap for their research.”
“The NEOtrap, which we developed in Cees Dekker’s lab (Delft University of Technology) and in collaboration with Hendrik Dietz (Technical University of Munich), is a way for scientists to study proteins’ properties by holding single ones of them and following and measuring them over long periods of time, explains Schmid. This creates near endless possibilities. For example, a linked bait molecule can extract the desired molecule from a protein mixture in a very precise manner. We can also collect a large number of patterns specific to a particular protein which may be recognized by algorithms to identify individual proteins. This means it is possible to screen protein mixtures without prior modification or labelling. The label-free aspect is a great advantage of the NEOtrap, enabling direct measurements of blood, sweat, or saliva, for example.
Potential insights into brain disorders
The NEOtrap finds and isolates proteins that are naturally present in bodies or plants which allows one to examine the protein in great detail. If you can see how proteins develop over time, it is possible to find the causes of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. Curing these brain disorders requires insights at the nanoscale, which is precisely what the NEOtrap offers. This does not mean that a cure will be available immediately, but it does mean that we are one step closer toward its development.
Unique insight into the inner workings of proteins
By chemically and thermally folding or unfolding proteins, different applications are possible. This provides a unique insight into the structural stability which reveals the inner workings of proteins. All these discoveries and developments are potential springboards for further research into proteins and the wonderful molecular functions they perform in our body.
“Proteins are the active players in all life on earth,” says Schmid. “So if we can better detect how proteins work, we will be closer to finding cures, medication, ways of efficient and sustainable crop production, clean microbial water purification, as well as combating antibacterial resistance and much more. The applications are almost endless.”
Importance of fundamental research
Schmid continues: “Seemingly abstract breakthroughs in fundamental research can have an enormous impact on our daily lives in the future, and may even help us cure certain diseases. Take the example of the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine: it was developed so quickly because Katalin Karikó and others did fundamental research some 20 years ago. With this, her fundamental research became the key to all the mRNA vaccines we have now. Hopefully, our breakthrough will inspire many other researchers and spark further advances in single-protein studies.”