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Fingerprinting diseases


José María Mato is a scientist at the new CIC-Biogune research centre in Zamudio (Bizkaia). For more than twenty years now he has been studying the liver disease known as steatohepatitis. This is a serious illness which develops when large amounts of fat are accumulate din the liver, and mat result in cirrhosis or, in the worst scenario, in cancerous tumours.

The greatest problem with this illness to date is that it cannot be diagnosed until the symptoms have already appeared and then it is normally too late, the disease being irreversible. José María Mato’s aim is to find a method which enables diagnosis in the initial phases of the illness, i.e. he is trying to find out which genes and proteins vary in this initial phases of the infirmity.

Mato had already identified a gene involved in the ailment but this did not prove to be enough. Now the proteins are his main target. The fact is that, although it is the genes that hold the relevant information, this data is later expressed in the proteins and it is these which really work inside the cells.

Effectively, the new challenge in biology is called proteomics. This is the science aimed at discovering what all the proteins are in the cell and how they function. In reality, it is considerably more complex than studying genes.

During the development of living organisms, the proteins in the cells vary. Likewise, they vary, for example, during any illness. Proteomics enables the observation of which proteins are expressed in each situation.

Moreover, with the new techniques, researchers can study the synthesis of hundreds of proteins in a short time. This is one of the great contributions of proteomics given that, until recently, the proteins had to be studied one by one. What’s more, they can be investigated at a speed that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. This is why proteomics enables the stud of diseases from a perspective that is very different from the current one. Observing the pattern of protein expression in the cell, a kind of fingerprint for the illness can be obtained.

The aim of Mato is to find the “fingerprint” for steatohepatitis, see what proteins alter during the development of the disease and thus be able to develop a diagnostic chip in order to rapidly measure the amount of these very proteins in the blood of any patient. Proteomics has given great hope to scientists.

Aitziber Agirre | Basque research
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