I was pretty pleased the other day when my son called from college. In fact, I’m usually pretty pleased when he calls, because as a 21 year old college junior he’s understandably too busy with many other things to get in touch with the old man—those other things being, you know, parties, being “of age,” going places and doing stuff, exploring all the things kids of his age explore, and um, what else? Oh, yeah, studying.
This call was about a biochemistry class he’s been taking. Seems they were studying computerized methods of analyzing protein structure (of what? you ask). Never mind what that means, it’s all so techno that even an old salty dog biochemist like I can get a bit lost in it. But what was cool was, he was doing his class exercises on his computer and stumbled across my name. Seems that his professor was using one of my old, published and patented scientific methods to teach new, young whippersnapper college biochemists how to analyze protein molecules.
It’s a technique I developed years ago that has spread around the world in laboratories analyzing dozens of different human diseases and conditions where a protein gone bad is the culprit. My method, most often called the Hopp and Woods Algorithm in recognition of my PhD thesis advisor and me, can figure out a lot about a particular molecule, like how it sticks to other molecules, how it is changed or degraded by other molecules, and on and on into a technological smorgasbord of possibilities too numerous to tell of here. Just as an example, the image above, called a Hopp and Woods Hydrophilicity Profile, shows, at its center, the identification of part of a protein called a histocompatibility antigen that plays a major role in kidney and heart transplant rejection. It starts to get pretty interesting when you realize people’s lives depend on getting answers to how such things happen, no matter how techno they may be.
If the foregoing wasn’t already too techno for you, then you might want to click on the image at left, the cover page of my original scientific paper on the subject, and follow the link to read all the gory details of my creation of the method. It was a heady time, when I first figured out how to spot the evilest parts of evil molecules like the influenza hemagglutinin (the molecule that allows flu bugs to get inside your body) or the hepatitis B virus surface antigen (the molecule you get immune to with a hepatitis B vaccine shot). As with some of my other discoveries, there was a bit of controversy surrounding this one, and you can read about that too if you’d like.
My scientific career has had its ups and downs but it’s nice to think that a scientific method I developed decades ago as a young whippersnapper biochemist myself, has become a standard teaching tool for up-and-coming biotechnologists of the future. It makes a fellow feel that his life in the sciences has stood for something, all said and done.