Eric Johnston decided early to become a fire fighter, a profession where he would have been able to save lives. Thanks to his sister submitting an application to KTH in his name, he became interested in organic chemistry and ended up at Stockholm University: first as a student, then as a doctoral student, and now as a researcher. The dream of saving lives has not been forgotten, but now he wants to fulfil it through chemistry.

Proteins are not just building blocks in our bodies and every other living thing; they can also be used as medicine. Scientists can already create proteins by chemical means, but this is a slow, expensive and inefficient process. The protein has to undergo many transformations and be purified in several steps, losing valuable material in the process. Eric Johnston thinks he may have found a way to improve the process. The idea emerged during his time as a postdoc in Samuel Danishefsky’s research group at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

“I spent hundreds of hours in front of purification instruments. I started with a gram and ended with a milligram of finished protein – after a year. My mentor thought it was a lot, I thought he was making fun of me,” says Eric Johnston.

Applied for patent

Eric started thinking, ploughing through literature, and taking inspiration from how protein production occurs in nature. In November 2014 he was back at Stockholm University. Since then, he has built up a new branch of research: chemical synthesis of proteins. This has required a new lab as well as new collaborations. The patent application for the new method was submitted four months ago. Klas Magnusson at the Innovation Office has helped Eric Johnston with the application, business coaching, and making connections with other researchers who have gone through similar processes. The next step is to start a company, either for the production of proteins or for the sale of manufacturing licences. 

“I definitely think that more people should seek patents on their research; this is very important to Sweden. We are very prominent when it comes to research. I admit that it is a complicated process, but it is important that we as a nation does not lose our research to other countries.”

He is hoping to have the patent approved and develop the method on a smaller scale in the research lab. The long-term goal is to be able to develop new proteins on a large scale, in a more efficient and less costly manner. Until the patent is approved, Eric cannot say too much about the details, but the team has made some progress. 

“I am pretty sure it will work, and the best thing is that it could be used to help people through new medicine. I would like to be able to give something back to society. That feeling enables me to work around the clock,” says Eric Johnston.

Facts: Protein synthesis

Protein is an essential component of all life and consists of long chains of amino acids. 

Protein-based medicine is a clinically and commercially important class of medicine which can be used to treat diabetes, osteoporosis, cancer, etc. The proteins are primarily produced by cells that have been genetically modified to synthesise large amounts of the desired protein. 

Chemical synthesis of protein, in contrast to that which occurs in living cells, has the advantage that it can produce exactly the protein we want. However, it currently produces very small amounts of finished protein – enough for biological analysis, but not enough for therapeutic applications. 

The new method that could make chemical protein production more efficient is based on the use of “molecular Velcro”.  To visualise the method, we can imagine that a short amino acid chain is temporarily attached to a molecular Velcro which, in turn, has a partner attached to another amino acid chain. Thanks to the Velcro’s structure, it only forms a pair with the right partner. By creating many different types of Velcro, the amino acids can be selectively attached to each other.

Protein research is a growing field. Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council were recently commissioned by the government to establish a national research programme on proteins, with the aim to make Sweden a leading country when it comes to the development and production of biological medicinal products.