University of Maryland’s New Research Magnet May Help Unlock Molecular Mysteries
The large, two-story light gray canister on three legs takes up a corner of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) lab in the basement of a modern research building on the University of Maryland campus in Baltimore. Inside the newly installed 950 MHz spectrometer is one of the world’s most powerful research magnets – one of only two 950 MHz NMR magnets in the United States and the only one at a U.S. academic institution.
Scientists use NMR spectroscopy to determine the structure of organic compounds by placing energy-charged molecules into a magnetic field, exposing them to radio waves and analyzing how the atomic nuclei within the molecules behave.
“This instrument is just phenomenal, way better than we anticipated. We’re already seeing clear-cut interactions between proteins that we couldn’t see with our 800 MHz magnet,” says David J. Weber, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. His laboratory is developing small-molecule inhibitors geared to a family of calcium-binding proteins, including one that is being tested in a clinical study at the University of Maryland Greenebaum Cancer Center as a possible treatment for melanoma.
Dr. Weber, who is director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Biomolecular Therapeutics and associate director of the Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research, was instrumental in bringing the powerful magnet to the university.
The “super magnet” – which resembles a large R2D2 robot of Star Wars fame – was purchased in 2010 with a $7.9 million federal grant. The University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), partnered with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) and University of Maryland, College Park (UM) to submit the grant application. After months of testing and fine-tuning the instrument, scientists are starting to make full use of the magnet.
The magnet and spectrometer will be shared equally by scientists at the three University of Maryland campuses and will be available to molecular biologists, biochemists and other researchers throughout the country, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The eight-ton 22.3 Tesla magnet – so powerful that it could lift 50 cars – produces a supercharged magnetic field that will enable scientists to investigate the three-dimensional structure of biological molecules and study their interaction with the highest degree of resolution. Armed with this data, they may be able to unlock the mysteries of many molecules and develop new agents to treat cancer, AIDS and other diseases.
“Being able to observe molecules at the atomic-level eliminates a great deal of guessing when you’re conducting complicated molecular experiments. With this magnet, we have a much better ability to look at larger molecules and protein complexes. It’s like working in a room with the lights on,” Dr. Weber says.
Dr. Weber worked with Michael F. Summers, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at UMBC, and David Fushman, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Maryland in College Park, on the grant proposal to acquire the magnet. They are among the first researchers to use the new instrument. The magnet will initially be used by 35 scientists.
Before they could begin to use the technology, the scientists and NMR lab staff worked closely with the German manufacturer, Bruker Corp., to make sure that the magnet was installed properly and would function with peak precision.
The process included chilling the magnet with liquid helium to -456 degrees Fahrenheit, and then slowly adding electricity to energize it. “The goal was to get 240 amps of electricity in there under superconductive conditions and never have it change at all,” Dr. Weber says. They then spent three months “shimming” the magnet – tweaking the electricity in three dozen locations to ensure the magnetic field was stable – and performing exhaustive tests to make sure the magnet was providing accurate data. “We wanted to make sure that everything was absolutely perfect,” Dr. Weber says.