North­eastern Uni­ver­sity hosted a ribbon-​​cutting cer­e­mony on Wednesday to com­mem­o­rate the new home of the Waters Lab­o­ra­tory at 140 The Fenway. The lab, des­ig­nated as a Waters Center of Inno­va­tion, is run by John R. Engen, pro­fessor of chem­istry, and is the cor­ner­stone of the university’s 40-​​year part­ner­ship with the Massachusetts-​​based Waters Cor­po­ra­tion — a world-​​leading sup­plier of lab­o­ra­tory ana­lyt­ical instruments.

We value this part­ner­ship tremen­dously because it is based on the inter­sec­tion of our inter­ests. But also we value the fact that it has sus­tained itself for so many years,” North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun said at the cer­e­mony. In atten­dance was uni­ver­sity lead­er­ship, fac­ulty and top Waters Cor­po­ra­tion offi­cials — including Dr. James L. Waters, H’93, who founded the com­pany in 1958 and has long sup­ported Northeastern’s research efforts.

Chem­istry pro­fessor John Engen (left) and Pres­i­dent Joseph E. Aoun

The lab was pre­vi­ously based in Northeastern’s Mugar building. When Engen first brought his ideas to Waters in 2005, he’d been using makeshift instru­men­ta­tion patched together with random lab­o­ra­tory finds for sev­eral years. “He showed slides of a cruddy Sty­ro­foam box!” recalled John Gebler, director of the Waters Cen­ters of Inno­va­tion Program.

Engen was stead­fast in pushing for­ward an ana­lyt­ical process —  hydrogen-​​deuterium exchange mass spec­trom­etry (HDX-​​MS) — that many con­sid­ered too dif­fi­cult to be prac­tical. Seven years later, that Sty­ro­foam box has been replaced with a temperature-​​controlled cooling module in a robot­i­cally auto­mated instru­ment that mea­sures a protein’s dynamic struc­ture in a matter of hours. The instru­ment has been opti­mized by Engen and com­mer­cial­ized by Waters.

When used as bio­phar­ma­ceu­tical drugs, pro­teins have appli­ca­tions as far-​​reaching as treating cancer, HIV/​AIDS and stroke. Under­standing their con­for­ma­tion can also yield impor­tant answers to basic sci­ence ques­tions about the way the body oper­ates in health and dis­ease. But they are dif­fi­cult to char­ac­terize: They con­sist of thou­sands of atoms, have com­plex, higher-​​order struc­tures and are always in flux.

Hydrogen-​​deuterium exchange pro­vides infor­ma­tion about pro­tein struc­ture.  In the Sty­ro­foam box days, Engen and his col­leagues needed to sift through thou­sands of pieces of data by hand to get an idea of the pro­tein con­for­ma­tion and dynamics. The process took months.

If you take a bio­phar­ma­ceu­tical drug, wouldn’t you want to know that it wouldn’t hurt you but heal?” asked Gebler. To ensure that a pro­tein is safe and ther­a­peu­ti­cally active, we need a quick, com­pre­hen­sive pic­ture of pro­tein con­for­ma­tion. HDX-​​MS does exactly that.

Prior to the cer­e­mony, North­eastern and the Waters Cor­po­ra­tion hosted a sym­po­sium for sci­en­tists in acad­emia and industry. Murray Gibson, dean of the Col­lege of Sci­ence, offered opening remarks to kick off the sym­po­sium, which high­lighted the var­ious ways researchers around the country are using the HDX-​​MS system for pro­tein drug dis­covery, char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and optimization.

Bio­phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals are soon expected to account for half of the top 100 pre­scribed med­ica­tions, said Waters CEO Dou­glas A. Berthi­aume. “They offer great promise to patients and can poten­tially cure dis­ease instead of just treating symp­toms.” But more research is required. HDX-​​MS will most cer­tainly be a crit­ical tool in that effort.

But research is only half the ques­tion, Berthi­aume con­tinued. “State of the art training is also crit­ical to large mol­e­cule char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and FDA com­pli­ance.”  Toward that end, Waters and Northestern also announced on Wednesday the devel­op­ment of a bio­phar­ma­ceu­tical ana­lyt­ical training lab (BATL) to be housed on Northeastern’s Burlington campus.

A tech­nique that was once car­ried out by only a handful of ana­lyt­ical chemists is now avail­able to the broader com­mu­nity, answering ques­tions that were thought to have no solu­tion. In 2009, hydrogen-​​deuterium exchange made the cover of Ana­lyt­ical Chem­istry, the sem­inal journal in mea­sure­ment sci­ence, for the second time, “the equiv­a­lent of going double-​​platinum in the record industry,” said Engen.