Technology for human health

Cryo-electron microscopy to be expanded, and new professorship created, thanks to donations

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23.08.2018 – ETH Zurich is delighted to announce that, thanks to a generous donation pledged by the family of August von Finck Jr, it is now in a position to acquire a new cryo‑electron microscopy (cryo-EM) system.

At the same time, three foundations have agreed to provide sustained support for scientific research in this field: the NOMIS Foundation and the Monique Dornonville de la Cour Foundation are making available initial funding, covering a 10-year period, for a professorship in the Department of Biology. This project is also being supported by the Baugarten Foundation.

The donations from these four partners, totalling CHF 13 million, will enable ETH Zurich to purchase a state-of-the-art cryo-EM system, to upgrade an existing system, and to establish a new professorship.

ETH Zurich President Lino Guzzella said: “I would like to express my profound gratitude to the donors for their extremely generous support, which will allow ETH Zurich to investigate the molecular world with unprecedented precision. This opens up completely new possibilities for the life sciences.”

But what exactly does cryo-EM involve? A key role in the continuous series of biochemical reactions and processes occurring in living cells is played by proteins, which serve a wide variety of functions. If protein structures are disrupted, intracellular processes no longer run smoothly, possibly triggering the development of diseases.

While researchers have long been aware of the crucial significance of these molecules, the determination of three-dimensional protein structures has proved challenging: these cellular components are too small to be detected by traditional microscopy, and other imaging techniques are also of limited value. But with the advent of cryo-electron microscopy, structures of protein molecules can now be determined at near‑atomic resolution. The three scientists who developed this revolutionary method were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2017. In its citation, the Nobel Prize Committee wrote: “This method has moved biochemistry into a new era.”

The same can now also be said of ETH Zurich. Thanks to the four donors’ contributions, ETH Zurich will be at the cutting edge of research in this area. For cryo-EM, in combination with other techniques, opens up unprecedented opportunities to investigate the structural foundations of biochemical processes in healthy and diseased cells. This method will make it possible, for example, to identify pathogenetic mechanisms or to observe individual metabolic processes which could serve as a basis for new therapeutic approaches in personalised medicine.


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