Somewhere in the labyrinth of Kansas University's Malott Hall, medical researchers spent a year coddling 50 vials of microscopic amounts of protein, waiting for the substances to purify for use in the crusade against cancer.
But last week someone took the vials and their contents, worth $15,000, from a locked laboratory. There was no broken glass, no forced entry. What had taken a year to create was gone in a flash, swiped sometime, officials believe, during a three-day period.
KU Public Safety officers are following leads, but have not yet named a suspect in the crime, which happened between midnight June 28 and 10 p.m. June 30, Capt. Schuyler Bailey said.
Officers have been talking with those who work and spend the most time around the labs, he said.
Each vial of the frozen protein harbored only 5 microliters of material, said Brian Blagg, the assistant professor of medicinal research who reported the theft.
"It's not very much, but there's a lot of protein in there," he said.
The missing protein -- which amounts to a quarter of a milliliter, total -- was not infectious but was poised for use under the $10.1 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence grant awarded in 2003 to Robert Hanzlik, KU professor of medicinal chemistry, Blagg said.
The grant gives young faculty researchers from across the state an opportunity to research cancer-fighting proteins.
None of the missing vials has been recovered, but other vials of the same protein in another Malott lab were not disturbed or removed, Blagg said.
He declined to comment further about the theft or the investigation.
Under the grant, Blagg studies the "chaperone" protein Hsp90, Hanzlik said. The protein has been strongly connected to anti-growth of cancer cells, said Hanzlik, Blagg's mentor in the project.
When cells make proteins, the protein is initially produced as a simple string of amino acids, he said. The string can take on a three-dimensional or a linear shape. Proteins must have folded into three-dimensional shapes before they can function properly, Hanzlik said.
Hsp90, Blagg's specialty, helps in the folding process.
Hanzlik said he had not heard about the theft and could not speculate about why the protein would be taken.