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Vital Signs

Playing around with proteomics

By Laura Stephenson Carter

There's a new kid on the block over at Dartmouth's Norris Cotton Cancer Center, and he's willing to share his high-tech "toys." Dr. Scott Gerber, a proteomics expert who until recently was at Harvard, has a couple of state-of-the-art mass spectrometers that analyze proteins faster than a speeding bullet. And he's happy to let other Dartmouth scientists use them, too.

Cells: Proteomics, the newest frontier in cancer research, is the study of proteins and their function. Genes are the blueprints for cells, but proteins are their workhorses, says Gerber. To understand how cells work, one needs to understand what proteins are present and how they interact with each other.

"We are interested in the large-scale analysis of proteins [to determine] how they function in a network in a connected sort of environment to affect the cellular process, whether that's gene and mismatch repair or driving a cell forward and telling a cell, 'Okay it's time to divide and to generate progeny,' and so forth," he explains.

The mass spectrometers, each about the size of a washing machine, can do high-speed analysis of complex proteins—"potentially tens of thousands of peptides in a single sample," Gerber says. The equipment has enough capacity to handle Gerber's own work as well as questions from other DMS investigators.

One of the machines belongs to the Molecular Biology and Proteomics Core Facility, which offers services to DMS faculty who have isolated a protein but don't know what it is. "They can submit that sample to the core . . . and essentially have the protein identified," says Gerber, who is the associate director of the core facility.

Proteomics expert Scott Gerber is happy to show off—and even share—his "toys," like this mass spectrometer, which can do high-speed analysis of complex proteins.

Gerber's own research focuses on determining how certain proteins, when they are disrupted, drive a cell to become cancerous, as well as on developing technologies to profile human fluid samples, like plasma and serum, for biomarkers that might be early indicators of disease.

"Ultimately, our goal is to identify biomarkers, but we're approaching that problem more from a technological perspective," he says. The human proteome is so complex that "trying to find a molecule that's representative of your idiosyncratic state of health at this snapshot in time is a very, very challenging task. So we develop technologyOne of the machines belongs to the Molecular Biology and Proteomics Core Facility, which to assist in the process." Gerber collaborates with cell biologists, immunologists,

pharmacologists, bioengineers, and clinicians to help unlock cancer's secrets.

Small: It might seem surprising that Gerber is so comfortable in such a high-tech field considering he grew up in a town in Idaho so small that there were only six people in his high school class. "It was a pretty small environment, and I couldn't wait to leave it," he confesses. He majored in chemistry at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., got his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry at the University of Washington, and was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard before coming to Dartmouth in 2006 as an assistant professor of genetics.

Now he's got the best of both worlds—big and small: DMS is big enough to offer high-tech, world-class research opportunities and small enough for the kind of collegial, collaborative relationships Gerber enjoys.

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