Spectrometer at University of Wisconsin. From left to right: John Markley (UW), Milo Westler (UW), Jeff Hoch (UConn), Art Edison (UGA), Katie Henzler-Wildman (UW) [Photo: Courtesy of Jeff Hoch]

UConn Awarded $40 Million Grant to Develop Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Data Network

It can probe the inner workings of a Lithium ion battery, it can shed light on genetic diseases, and it’s even been used to develop cancer treatments — it’s a technique called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. 

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is similar to magnetic resonance, most commonly known for its use in MRI machines, and both techniques use magnetic fields to gather information on a molecular level. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance causes the electric charges in the atoms of a given molecule to emit frequencies, which give scientists information about the size, structure and movement of molecules.  

“They act as little atomic spies, so to speak, telling you what’s going on inside the molecule,” said Dr. Jeffrey Hoch, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biophysics at UConn School of Medicine. 

Hoch is the principal scientist who will implement a shared grant of $40 million from the National Science Foundation received by the University of Connecticut to create a network that will help scientists access information and scientific instruments that facilitate work in drug development, medical diagnoses and other chemical innovations. 

The research grant is the largest that the University has ever received, and will cement a three-way partnership between UConn, the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin — the two other recipients of the grant — through a system of data and instrument sharing in the field of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, known as the Network for Advanced NMR. 

Because of the strength of the magnet field, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance allows scientists to view the structures of molecules and their environments in much smaller chemical and biological samples. Hoch said the technique is extremely useful for the pharmaceutical industry, since the technology allows scientists to examine the structure of proteins, which are often the targets for drugs. 

He said that the technique has been used in the development of a series of drugs for transplant patients that are used to keep the immune system from rejecting the transplanted organ. Scientists have also used the technology to develop drugs for treating cancer. 

The technique is also good for analyzing the molecules in biofluids — for example, urine, blood and cerebrospinal fluid — which can help doctors diagnose patients. Hoch said the technique has been used to conduct research on diseases that involve problems with lipid metabolism, like muscular dystrophy.

Datahubs and giant spectrometers 

The University of Wisconsin and the University of Georgia are each using the grant to purchase a 1.1-gigaherz spectrometer, the device that measures nuclear magnetic resonance using certain properties of light including wavelength, frequency or energy. These two devices, along with a 1.2-gigaherz spectrometer at Ohio State University, are the only instruments of this size in the United States that are available for public use. 

UConn is not receiving a spectrometer because the space for the device wasn’t available when the university originally applied for the grant, Hoch said.

“These require very special kinds of environments,” he said. “They have to have very stable floors. They’re very massive and require a very high floor loading capacity. They need a very quiet environment.”

The University does have the space for a 1.1 gigahertz spectrometer now and the school will apply for a grant in the future to get one, Hoch said. 

He estimated that the magnets stand around 16 feet tall and need a circular area around them with a diameter of 25 to 30 feet, plus space above the device in order to transfer in liquid helium, which is used to supercool the magnets. 

UConn currently houses four smaller spectrometers, ranging from 400 to 800 megahertz. A 1.2 gigahertz spectrometer is between 1.5 to 3 times more powerful than these smaller machines.

For now, UConn will be acting as a central datahub for the three institutions, which together include 21 spectrometers of various sizes. Scientists will be able to access a portal where they can find information about which instruments are available, request use of the machines and arrange to have samples transmitted. 

The University will also curate a database that will automatically upload and store all the data analyzed using the three instruments.

Hoch runs the university’s Gregory P. Mullen NMR Structural Biology Facility and will be in charge of the data center, which will be located in Farmington. 

“Democratizing” science

Hoch said that UConn was chosen for the grant because the university already runs a public data repository called the Biological Magnetic Resonance Data Bank. They also have a data processing and analysis platform, which Hoch likened to an app store, that is filled with hundreds of software packages for scientists trying to analyze data from the spectrometers. 

Hoch said he anticipates high demand for the largest machines, since only three exist for public use throughout the country.  

“Europe is way ahead of us,” said Hoch. “Europe is on track to have about a dozen of these Gigahertz-class instruments before we get the first one up and running here in the United States.” 

Hoch said he hopes the project will give scientists more opportunities for collaboration and make it possible for researchers to conduct experiments that were previously unachievable without access to high-powered machines. 

“[The National Science Foundation] has described it as an effort to democratize [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance],” said Hoch. “We’re trying to lower the activation barriers and make it easier to share data.” 

The machines will take about two and a half years to install at the universities, giving UConn time to set up its data portal. The grant will last four years. 

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