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Press Release: NIH AND DOE to Upgrade Synchrotron X-Ray Research Facilities in California and New York

Multimillion Dollar Investment to Increase Understanding of Disease and Help Develop New Pharmaceuticals

Date Issued:July 21, 1999


  • Office for Communications, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center: Telephone: 650-926-8703 Fax Number: 650-926-8793

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy (DOE) today announced a new collaboration to upgrade two of the nation's premier synchrotron x-ray facilities. The upgrades will increase the nation's ability to measure the structure of complex materials such as proteins in order to learn more about how they function.

Dr. Harold Varmus, NIH Director, and Dr. Martha Krebs, Director of DOE's Office of Science, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to significantly improve the capabilities of two x-ray sources, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) at the Department of Energy's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center at Stanford University and the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS) at the Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory, on Long Island, N.Y. This year, NIH is providing $14 million to SSRL and $4 million to NSLS.

"By upgrading these facilities, this collaboration holds the promise of providing dramatically improved capabilities to determine the structure of important molecules," said Dr. Varmus. "NIH's support is extremely timely and I believe will prove crucial to meet the exponentially growing demand for access to the Energy Department's world-class research facilities," said Dr. Krebs.

Some of the medical applications of this research project include designing new pharmaceutical drugs and understanding how protein malfunctions can lead to disease. For example, DOE synchrotron light sources have been used to help develop protease inhibitors used to treat HIV infection and they have been used to understand the mutations in an enzyme, superoxide dismutase, that have been associated with Lou Gehrig's disease. Research applications related to one of DOE's missions, the cleanup of its former weapons production complex, include studies of bacteria and plants being considered for use in bioremediation of environmental contamination.

The improvements include upgrading the electron storage ring at SSRL to convert it into a "third generation" x-ray source as well as providing accelerator and instrumentation upgrades at NSLS. The accelerator upgrade at SSRL will enable the five protein cyrstallography beamlines each to collect up to five times more data in a given period and therefore determine the structure of a particular protein or virus much more quickly. The beamline improvements will be dedicated for protein cyrstallography work. However, both synchrotron light sources are used for a wide variety of research besides cyrstallography in fields such as physics, materials science, geology, chemistry, biology, medicine, environmental science and electrical engineering. The accelerator upgrades will improve the overall performance of both facilities and thus will benefit all their scientific users, including those beyond the life sciences.

The development of powerful synchrotron x-ray sources at Department of Energy labs in recent years has made it possible for researchers to determine the structure of many complex materials including the molecular structure of proteins. The brightness of these synchrotron light source-generated x-ray beams is a billion times greater than laboratory generators and enables scientists to see important details not possible before.

Even with the addition in recent years of two new DOE facilities, the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Lab and the Advanced Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the demand by protein crystallography for use of these very bright x-ray sources has far outstripped the availability of beamlines. As the major supporter of basic biomedical research on proteins, NIH is responding to this demand by helping to upgrade the country's synchrotrons so that more experiments can be carried out. DOE's Basic Energy Sciences Advisory Committee recommended the upgrades in a 1997 report. An interagency working group on structural biology at syncrhrotrons, in a 1999 report, strongly endorsed the upgrades.

Synchrotron radiation is given off by charged particles at nearly the speed of light that are bent by magnets in the storage rings. The radiation, x-rays and ultraviolet rays in these particular facilities, is directed into numerous beamlines where scientist's position specialized instrumentation to do their research.

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