By Laura Mizoue

You’ve heard of insulin, right? You probably know that it helps regulate blood sugar, that its levels rise and fall depending on what and when you eat, and that a lot of diabetics have to inject themselves with it. But did you know that insulin is a protein?

Proteins have a serious branding problem. Say “protein” and most people think chicken or beef. Say “protein molecule” and it draws a blank stare. This presents a real problem when you’re trying to explain the value of measuring thousands of proteins in a person’s blood. And the maddening part is that most people already know how important insulin, hemoglobin, collagen, growth hormone, liver enzymes, inflammation markers and clotting factors are, they just don’t know that they’re proteins.

Because there are so many different proteins (molecules) in the human body — approximately 20,000 — and they do so many completely different things, proteins are never called proteins. In fact, proteins go by a host of monikers — enzymes, hormones, antibodies, regulators, receptors, transporters, signaling molecules — pretty much anything except the word “protein.”

Of all the names that proteins are called, the one that’s the most misleading is “gene expression product” because it implies that genes are where the action is. But opioids, statins, NSAIDs, SSRIs, ACE inhibitors and almost all other pharmaceutical drugs don’t target genes, they target proteins.

Whenever genomic testing companies want you to “meet your genes” what they really want you to do is meet your proteins. This is because your proteins, not your static pieces of DNA, are the molecules that actually do the work to keep you alive and well. If a mutation in a gene is associated with disease, it’s usually because it results in a defective protein that can’t do its job effectively or a protein that doesn’t even show up to work.

And they’re important jobs: stabilizing your blood sugar, transporting oxygen, helping you move, regulating your mood, fighting infection. Sometimes your body can get by for a while, but over time, if all your protein players aren’t working together in a coordinated fashion, the work situation breaks down and bad things can happen.

At SomaLogic, we measure the levels of approximately 5000 human proteins from a single blood sample. We believe that proteins directly reflect what’s going on in the human body and can help predict what’s going to happen in the future.

So let’s tell it like it is and call a protein a protein.