RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dr. Charles Simmons poses in the exhibit room for the American Crystallographic Association conference being held at the Sheraton Waikiki Ballroom.
Scientists seek secrets of crystals
About 1,000 crystallographers -- chemists and physicists trying to understand the structure of proteins essential for life -- convened in Honolulu this week to share results of research that could lead to new drugs for viruses, cancers and other diseases.
"Think about a salt shaker, what makes the little crystals of salt," said Charles Simmons, University of Hawaii-Hilo chemistry professor. "It's sodium chloride. That's what crystallographers do -- determine arrangements of atoms and molecules that make up crystals.
"Most of the drugs we have today are from knowing the design of protein molecules."
Simmons is one of two crystallographers in Hawaii. The other is UH-Manoa chemistry professor Karl Seff. They were local chairs of the American Crystallographic Association's six-day annual meeting at the Sheraton-Waikiki Hotel. About 40 countries were represented.
The United States is a leader in science, Simmons said, "but I am impressed with what they are doing in China." He pointed to a lack of interest by U.S. students in chemistry and physics, noting many faculty members in those areas are Chinese and about half of students working for doctorate degrees are from foreign countries.
Scientists gave more than 700 presentations at the conference on complex topics ranging from "Supramolecular Chemistry: From Assembly to Structure and Function" to "Cool Structures" and "Membranes and Membrane Proteins."
Simmons said he is a small-molecule crystallographer, studying various copper components, while most scientists at the meeting were "protein people" studying large biological molecules.
Rutgers University in New Jersey maintains a Protein Data Bank, posting information on the Web. "A huge percentage of what is done (in crystallography) is related to drug design," said Judith Flippen-Anderson, the project's outreach coordinator. The protein bank was established in 1971 and has information for more than 38,000 structures, "solved by many of those in this room," noted Christine Zardecki, with an exhibit on the bank.
The repository's variety of medically important structures includes enzymes and other proteins associated with influenza, HIV, SARS and other viruses, parts of proteins such as those involved in Mad Cow Disease and others associated with Alzheimer's disease and many human cancers.
Flippen-Anderson said the data is used extensively by teachers and students.
There are thousands of different proteins to study, "not just from humans but from animals and insects -- you name it," Simmons said. But with high-tech instruments, rapid progress is anticipated in unraveling some of the mysteries of important proteins, he said.