A North­eastern chem­istry pro­fessor is a leader in the inter­na­tional effort to advance the under­standing of human genetics and genomics by assigning each of the 23 pairs of human chro­mo­somes for in-​​depth study by research groups in dif­ferent countries.

William Han­cock, the Brad­street Chair in Bio­an­a­lyt­ical Chem­istry at Northeastern’s Bar­nett Insti­tute of Chem­ical and Bio­log­ical Analysis, is on the exec­u­tive com­mittee of the Human Pro­teome Orga­ni­za­tion (HUPO) and a key player in the project assigned to the United States team: to ana­lyze the role of pro­teins in chro­mo­some 17, which includes the gene that makes people sus­cep­tible to breast cancer.

The project is a daunting one: the human genome has 22,000 genes and prob­ably about 500,000 pro­teins, which each serve a dif­ferent role and have been shaped by mil­lennia of human evo­lu­tion. The project is specif­i­cally looking at a chromosome’s pro­teomes, which pro­duce pro­teins as directed by RNA — an effort so large that it quickly became clear the work needed to be con­ducted on a global scale.

The project is sim­ilar to pre­vious work to sequence the human genome, which gave sci­en­tists a far deeper under­standing of genetics. This project will help sci­en­tists better under­stand the role myriad pro­teins play in human chro­mo­somes, which can improve the mon­i­toring of dis­ease and the devel­op­ment of more effec­tive drug treat­ments in the next decade.

There are gaps in our knowl­edge, and this project will help us to fill in those gaps,” said Han­cock, editor-​​in-​​chief of the Journal of Pro­teome Research.

Barnett’s team at North­eastern, which includes two research pro­fes­sors in the Bar­nett Insti­tute, Billy Wu and Marina Hin­capie, and a group of PhD stu­dents, is working with researchers from the Uni­ver­sity of Michigan Med­ical School, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and the Uni­ver­sity of Van­couver to map out the role of each pro­tein in the chro­mo­some to better under­stand what each does and how modern med­i­cine could treat dis­eases that some genes cause.

The project began in Sep­tember and will take 10 years to com­plete. In the first year, HUPO will work to orga­nize the 14 coun­tries that have already signed on and recruit more to study all 23 pairs of chromosomes.

Barnett’s team includes five chem­istry PhD stu­dents — Emma Zhang, Suli Li, Julia Yan, Fateme Tousi and Fan Zhang — who will focus on areas including stem cells and the pro­teins in chro­mo­some 17 that affect breast, gas­tric, renal and other forms of cancer.

The impact is straight­for­ward, really,” Han­cock said. “Our hypoth­esis is if we know a lot about the missing parts of chro­mo­somes and pro­teomes, we can do a lot better at diag­nosing dis­ease and treating dis­ease through ther­a­pies that specif­i­cally target the genes that cause disease.”