The Whitehead Institute has received a medical research grant of $750,000 from the W.M. Keck Foundation of Los Angeles to construct and equip an X-ray crystallography suite in the Institute's new Center for Structural Biology.
This facility will offer Whitehead scientists crucial state-of-the-art technology to advance projects in fields ranging from basic developmental biology to drug design.
"X-ray crystallography is the most powerful method available for visualizing the three-dimensional structures of proteins, DNA and other large biological molecules," said Dr. Gerald R. Fink, director of Whitehead. "The W.M. Keck Foundation's grant will accelerate our research on cancer, bacterial diseases and AIDS, and also enhance our efforts to understand the regulatory mechanisms responsible for normal growth and development in all organisms."
X-ray crystallography is a key element in Whitehead's initiative in structural biology, the study of the relationship between the three-dimensional structure of a molecule and its function. For example, the difference between a normal protein and a cancer-causing "oncoprotein" may be one misplaced twist in the protein molecule. X-ray crystallography and other tools allow scientists to examine disease-related proteins at the atomic level and then design very specific strategies to block or alter them.
The initiative in structural biology is part of Whitehead's strategic plan that also includes major efforts in transgenic science and infectious disease. According to Dr. Fink, this plan is based on the realization that new technologies have changed the practice of science in ways that could not have been predicted when the Whitehead Institute began in 1982.
To meet this challenge, Whitehead launched a $12 million fundraising campaign whose goals included construction of a six-story addition to the Whitehead building. When the addition is finished in the spring of 1996, it will increase space for research and training by more than 45 percent. The X-ray crystallography suite will be housed in the new wing.
"We are very grateful that the W.M. Keck Foundation has provided support in this important area," Dr. Fink said. "Like its previous support of the Whitehead Fellows Program, this grant will enable us to advance the work of some of the most creative young scientists in biology today."
The Keck grant will also play a vital role in Whitehead's first major fundraising initiative, according to Susan Whitehead, vice chairman of the Whitehead board of directors. "The grant will serve as a catalyst for other major gift support for the Center for Structural Biology. It is extremely important to us," she said.
The W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late William Myron Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Co. The Foundation, now one of the nation's largest charitable organizations, is now led by the founder's son, Howard B. Keck. Its primary interests are in education, science, engineering and medical research.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 16, 1995.