Keck Foundation awards $1.3 million grant to Keriann Backus and collaborators

Posted on

Prof. Keriann Backus

Professor Keriann Backus and collaborators from the University of Washington were awarded a $1.3 million W.M. Keck Foundation grant to fund research in single-cell protein measurement innovation.

Backus and collaborators Devin Schweppe and Brian Beliveau, both Assistant Professors of Genomic Sciences at the University of Washington, have been awarded a three-year, $1.3 million W.M. Keck Foundation grant. The grant aims to support the development of a novel approach utilizing custom reagents, multiplexed proteomics, and advanced computational methods. This approach is designed to enable high-throughput measurement of single-cell protein abundance, addressing challenges in proteomics scalability and amplification. The technology will be applied to investigate cell-to-cell variability in drug resistance, cellular differentiation, heterogeneous organoid biology, and primary tissue single-cell proteomics, areas not effectively addressed by current methods.

Backus joined the UCLA faculty in 2018 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Chemistry at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine and in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.  In 2020 she was selected for UCLA’s Alexander and Renee Kolin Endowed Professorship of Molecular Biology and Biophysics.  Backus’ research focuses on the development of new chemical tools and chemical proteomics methods to study and manipulate the human immune system.

From the W. M. Keck Foundation award announcement:

Multicellular life is defined by trillions of unique cells. Understanding how cells work together and what makes each cell unique is the key to understanding organism function. Using techniques developed to measure nucleic acids (RNA and DNA) in individual cells, recent studies have revealed some of the true scope of cell-to-cell differences that define life. However, proteins, not nucleic acids, are the molecular machines responsible for most cellular functions. A comprehensive understanding of multicellularity requires single-cell quantitative measurements of proteins. State-of-the-art single cell protein detection methods (e.g., mass spectrometry, microscopy, and flow cytometry), are useful for providing single-cell biochemical readouts for modest numbers of cells and specific proteins, but these methods fail to scale. Two key reasons for the failure to scale are the inherent challenges of: (1) performing proteomics on small amounts of material and (2) the inability to amplify proteins. This collaboration between the University of Washington and the University of California, Los Angeles, will establish an entirely new approach to overcome both challenges and achieve high coverage measures of single cell protein abundance. The key innovation of this work combines custom reagents, multiplexed proteomics, and state-of-the-art computational approaches to identify proteomes of single-cells at high-throughput using robust, scalable, and easily accessible methods on par with single-cell RNA and DNA assays. This technology will be used to interrogate how cell-to-cell variability contributes to four important areas that are not amenable to established methods: (1) in drug resistance, (2) cellular differentiation, (3) heterogeneous organoid biology, and (4) primary tissue single-cell proteomics.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry,