Erwin Schoof Head of Proteomics Core at DTU Bioengineering. Photo: Peter Aagaard Brixen.

Scientists detect diseases based on proteins in single cells

Wednesday 12 Feb 20


Erwin Schoof
Associate Professor
DTU Bioengineering
+45 45 25 86 10


Ulrich auf dem Keller
Professor MSO
DTU Bioengineering
+45 21 12 61 45

Unique open source proteomics core

DTU Bioengineering’s Proteomics Core is the only core of its kind in the Øresund Region which is open to all customers. Currently, the research core performs the majority of its tasks for the Biotech Research and Innovation Center, BRIC, and the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. The tasks often arise from research done in hospital departments at Rigshospitalet, Herlev Hospital, and Bispebjerg Hospital.

The Proteomics Core also performs a number of analyses for Lund University, the University of Toronto, and for companies such as Novozymes, Carlsberg, and Lundbeck.

Single-cell protein analysis

Researchers from DTU are the first in Europe to share results on mapping proteins on a single-cell level using Mass Spectrometry-based proteomics

Researchers at DTU are the first i Europe to share results on mapping proteins in single cells using mass spectrometry, which is a way to determine the mass of molecules and atoms. Among other things, the technology is used to detect diseases or the effect of medicine, and now, two years after the opening of DTU Bioengineering’s Proteomics Core, hospitals in the Capital Region of Denmark are among the biggest users of protein analyses of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, and skin diseases.

“Our research may, for example, be of interest for a surgeon in a hospital who removes a piece of tumour. With the new method, he will be able to get answers at single-cell level, unlike in the past, where you had to crush a larger number of cells from the tumour and dissolve them in a substance which would then enable us to say something general about them. But if we want to understand how cells work, we’ll have to look at how they interact, and, ideally, that means looking at single cells in isolation,” says Erwin Schoof, Head of DTU’s Proteomics Core.

Proteins as biomarkers

The results of DTU Bioengineering’s mass spectroscopy and the researchers’ methodology have been published as a pre-print on the Biorxiv research platform—i.e., they have yet to be peer-reviewed. Initially, the results of the research will only be relevant for other researchers working to discover biomarkers for which differences in cell protein levels can be used. If the mass spectrometer can describe specific protein profiles in a cancer cell, the results can be used as a biomarker to detect cancer or reveal whether medical treatment is effective.

Erwin Schoof explains that the Proteomics Core at DTU Bioengineering is so technologically advanced that it is currently not realistic to use it for direct patient diagnosis and treatment in hospitals. However, results at single-cell level can be used to determine simpler tests or equipment that can be used in treating human or animal diseases.

In recent years, researchers have taken major steps towards exploiting mass spectroscopy in the diagnosis of diseases, and Erwin Schoof believes that the proteomics technology is very likely to play a crucial role in future diagnostics.

Utilizes technology to the maximum

Researchers and industries working scientifically with proteins constantly push the boundaries for how small the cell components can be for their instruments to detect them. This is also the subject of Erwin Schoof's postdoc, where he examines whether it is possible to scale down the requirements for the amount of cells needed to perform mass spectrometry-based experiments.

“We’ve developed these new methods because we have been open to testing even very small cell samples. We’ve told our customers that there’s no guarantee it will work. But if they were willing to pay for the instruments, laboratory facilities and man-hours, we’d like to try. And the results have been surprising,” says Erwin Schoof.

The price of performing a mass spectrometry varies according to the nature of the task and whether it is a research collaboration or whether it is reqiured research. Researchers in hospitals and universities pay between DKK 3,500 and DKK 6,000 for a full day in a research collaboration, while the corresponding price for required research is DKK 8,000 – 16,000. The prices match the current market level for having similar analyses done in a private lab.

DTU Bioengineering’s Proteomics Core opened in January 2018 and now, two years after the inauguration, boasts some 60 customers and an annual turnover of DKK 1.5 million, enough to cover operating costs but no depreciation of equipment. Erwin Schoof hopes that the research core will be able to expand its customer base to 80-100 users a year, making it possible to hire more staff and, among other things, accommodate customers who wish to have computational analyses done of the data they receive from the proteomics core.