Scientists understand that proteins cause various diseases, from Alzheimer’s to cystic fibrosis to Parkinson’s to cataracts. But detecting them before they trigger illness is still a work in progress.
For University of Toronto analytical chemist Alana Ogata, the answer is to find better ways to identify single protein molecules in our bodily fluids, such as blood, urine, saliva and sweat.
The assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Physical Sciences at U of T Mississauga is aiming to develop bioanalytical technologies that can sense the smallest amounts of such proteins, so that diagnosis can happen sooner – which, critically, can lead to better treatment results.
“It’s about determining how the amount of these biomolecules that are present correlates with the stage of a disease,” Ogata says. “We need tools that are extremely sensitive to very low concentrations of proteins so that we can improve our diagnostic capabilities.”
In her lab, Ogata and her team of eight graduate and undergraduate students are exploring how to create biosensors that can quickly reveal the presence of proteins in relatively small sample sizes. Their findings could lead to tests that clinicians can use in hospitals or laboratories. They may also spark more at-home diagnostic tools, such as a pap smear-on-a-stick that would be akin to a pregnancy or rapid antigen COVID-19 test.
“Both of these tests give you a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer,” Ogata says. “We want to be able to make tests that are more quantitative, so that you know exactly how much of a protein is present – tests that are really simple that anyone can use at home.”
Ogata never imagined she would be tackling these sorts of problem when she first studied chemistry at her high school in Washington, D.C.. The concepts were too abstract, she says, and “I didn’t like it from the get-go.” But she gave the subject another chance in her first year at the public research university William & Mary and, with the guidance of a mentor, became captivated by opportunities to do research and lab work that could have real-world benefits.
Ogata built on her chemistry degree with a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of California, Irvine. That was followed by two post-doctoral research positions in Boston at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where she examined COVID-19 antigens in patients and vaccinated health-care workers. Published earlier this year in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, the study presented the first evidence of SARS-CoV-2 protein production from the mRNA vaccination, which validated the process of this then-novel approach to inoculation.
One year into her tenure at U of T Mississauga, Ogata continues to build her research program, which also includes investigating bioinspired nanomaterials – synthetic substances that can mimic the structure, properties or functions of living matter – for medical purposes, and developing more effective diagnostics for gynecological diseases such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and endometriosis. She would like to see more effort made to examine proteins in a historically understudied bodily fluid: menstrual blood.
“We know very well how to detect the biomarker for prostate cancer, but if I were to Google ‘menstrual blood-based markers,’ there’s not a lot in the literature,” she says. “There’s a stigma around it …and it may be more difficult to do. But there are a lot of things that are difficult in science, and we still figure out a way.”
Ogata’s research recently received two Discovery grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. And, earlier this month, she received the New Researcher Award from the Connaught Fund, an internal program for U of T researchers.
While support for her work is on a roll, Ogata also prioritizes educating and mentoring students to nurture future scientists, and is looking forward to teaching the third-year course Analytical and Physical Chemistry Instrumentation Laboratory this fall, as well as the fourth-year Advanced Analytical Chemistry course in the winter term.
To strike a balance with her responsibilities in the lab and classroom, Ogata teaches fitness. A certified instructor, she has led classes for her students as a way to build community, which she says feels particularly important during the pandemic.
“The fitness classes are a really nice way for people to get together and it’s good for mental health,” Ogata says. “I feel in my department that people are working hard and they care about what they do, but they’re also taking time for themselves, and that’s rubbing off on me. It’s been very healthy for my personal life.”