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Crystal Power

Drug makers have a protein problem. Proteins are potential drug targets, but growing a protein crystal-the first step in determining its structure-can take months of trial-and-error experimentation and cost millions of dollars in materials. Fluidigm, a startup in South San Francisco, CA, has developed a chip that allows researchers to grow protein crystals using one-hundredth the amount of the protein, saving money and slashing weeks-even months-off the time needed for this step.

To get good crystals, biochemists must test hundreds of possible combinations of protein and crystallization reagent: setting up each experiment can take hours, and its success depends on having enough protein on hand. Fluidigm’s chip allows simultaneous testing of 144 different crystallization conditions. Using just three microliters of protein sample-a tiny fraction of a drop-the chip diffuses the protein across three distinct concentrations of each of 48 crystallization reagents. Researchers screen the chip for crystals using a microscope; if they find crystals with a particular combination, they can grow more of them and then determine the protein’s structure. The company hopes to begin marketing the chips to pharmaceutical and biotech companies early this year.

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