Protein Sleuth


As part of a series, the Canada Foundation for Innovation created five profiles on researchers who unlock the power of big data.
By Sharon Oosthoek

Régis PomèsRégis Pomès, SickKids Hospital

Spying on proteins as they go about tasks that keep our bodies functioning can yield crucial insight into treatments for a range of illnesses. The challenge is that proteins often work in disordered clumps and at high speeds.

This disordered state allows the protein elastin, for example, to give skin, lungs and major arteries the ability to stretch and recoil.

“You need lungs to be elastic to breathe, but elastin is poorly understood,” says Régis Pomès, a computational biophysicist at Toronto’s SickKids Hospital.

Pomès wants to better understand elastin because it could lead to treatments for lung disease and the creation of artificial skin for burn victims or vascular grafts for heart patients.

Experiments designed to peer into disordered elastin clumps produce snapshots that are hard to piece together. In other words, experiments can’t give a complete picture. So Pomès mimics elastin, and other proteins, using high-performance computing, or as he puts it, “we make cartoons of biomolecular systems.”

He and his colleagues then scrutinize these cartoons to see how proteins move, how likely they are to take on certain shapes and how fast they can shift from one to another.

“We need a lot of detail about things happening in very small systems on very fast timescales,” says Pomès. “High-performance computing is essential to generate and analyze the huge amounts of data that we need to find out what is useful.”

Find more stories of research in action on , the website of the Canada Foundation for Innovation, where these podcasts originally appeared.

About the series

The incredible power of high performance computing to unlock massive data sets in order to answer an impressive range of research questions is a hallmark of computing in the present era. Research today is increasingly driven by massive digitization initiatives, high-throughput devices, sensor platforms and computational modelling and simulation, all of which generate data that are unprecedented in size and complexity. Here are five Canadian researchers whose work relies on advanced computing capabilities.

Leave A Comment