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What Proteins Can Tell Us About Our Health

Q&A With Smidt Heart Institute Scientist Jennifer Van Eyk, PhD

Imagine mailing a blood sample to a laboratory and a scientist being able to tell you if you have hidden cancer or whether your arteries are blocked.

This is the future envisioned by Jennifer Van Eyk, PhD, director of the Advanced Clinical Biosystems Research Institute and the Erika J. Glazer Chair in Women’s Heart Health at Cedars-Sinai.

Although the idea of using blood micro-sampling to predict disease has generated much hype in the recent past, Van Eyk’s approach is one that has decades of research behind it.

For the past 25 years, Van Eyk has focused on clinical proteomics, the study of the structure and function of proteins within the body. Today, she is an international leader in the field.

Cells use genes to make proteins that make it possible for the body’s functions to be carried out. By measuring proteins, we can get an accurate view of what our body is doing—and the possibilities are endless, according to Van Eyk.

This year alone, Van Eyk’s work was recognized with the Distinguished Contribution Award from the Association for Mass Spectrometry and Advances in the Clinical Lab, the President’s Distinguished Lecture Award from the International Society for Heart Research, and a spot on the 2023 Ten Years of Impact Power List by The Analytical Scientist.

Van Eyk spoke with the Cedars-Sinai Newsroom about how proteomics is changing medicine now and will continue to in the future.

How do proteins make us unique?

The human genome is not that much different than that of a fly. What makes each of us unique is which of those genes are expressed at any one time—meaning, which proteins are expressed at any one time.

The proteins are the end product. Think of a cell as being a city like L.A. Its DNA is the road map, but the city itself is the proteome, with moving parts and lots of activity.  

After proteins are made, they change. The amount of protein, and the chemical diversity of a protein in any single cell, can quickly change. When you stand up, your proteins change. When you sit down, your proteins change. When you blink your eye, your proteins change. Yet, some proteins can last for years, like the proteins that make up the eye lens.

There are also organ-specific proteins. For example, there are proteins that are only found in the heart. However, the majority of proteins are in all cells, but at different concentrations. What makes them different is chemistry that happens after they are made.

What are you hoping to learn by studying proteins?

Every time a physician has a decision to make, we would like to have a biomarker—a measurable biological substance such as a protein concentration—the physician can base the decision on. If you’re at risk of having sudden cardiac death, we want to have a marker that can tell us you are at risk. If you're coming in with breast cancer, and we want to have a biomarker to know what drug to put you on.

How do you measure proteins?

My lab makes a discovery of something new at least once a month because we can see things and measure things we couldn't before. It's like when you make a cake, you might wonder what difference one teaspoon versus one tablespoon of sugar will make in the final product. Our instruments are so fine we could figure out whether or not you have one more grain of sugar in that teaspoon than you’re supposed to have and what that might mean for a patient.

What do proteins tell us?

Let's say you have a series of alterations to your DNA that puts you at risk of having heart disease. That's informative, but it doesn't tell you when you're going to have a heart attack. It doesn't tell you what degree of hardening of the arteries you already have. Proteins can tell us you're going to have a heart attack, are having a heart attack, have had a change in your calcium level, or a change in your arteries. Proteins tell us what's happening now and predict what is going to happen; whereas genes merely tell us you’re at risk.

Could you give an example?

If you're having a heart attack, your doctor can take a blood sample and measure for a circulating protein that should only be found in the heart. If it’s elevated, it confirms that you’re having a heart attack.  

What are you working on now?

For certain studies, we’re doing remote sampling, something that can be done at home or anywhere and at any time. People mail us blood samples and we analyze the proteins in these samples to determine if their medication is working or if they may be at risk of having a heart attack or stroke, or other health issue. This is a new thing that we're trying to develop, in addition to helping physicians make clinical decisions.

You should be able to know what's going on with your health, even when you're not at the hospital or at your doctor’s office.

Read more in Discoveries: New Tools at the Innovation Center