Mass spectrometers for medical research

Mass spectrometers for medical research

10 Oct 2008

The global search for new, blockbuster drugs to target and treat cancer and auto-immune diseases got a $2 million accelerant with the launch of a new suite of five "state-of-the-art" mass spectrometers at Melbourne's La Trobe University today (3 pm Friday, October 10, 2008.)

A helicopter view of La Trobe's new proteomics facility.

A helicopter view of La Trobe's new proteomics facility.

Housed in the University's Molecular Sciences laboratories at its Bundoora campus, the highly sensitive mass spectrometers offer researchers at La Trobe University and the recently launched Bundoora-based CRC for Biomarker Translation (CRC BT) access to some of the world's most advanced proteomic processes for discovering new proteins present on cells from diseased tissues.

Recognised as "the basic units of the human cell", these proteins can be made to fly in the mass spectrometer in an electrically charged state, which facilitates the highly accurate measurement of their mass, enabling differentiation and identification.

Because of their exquisite sensitivity, mass spectrometers like these are a critical analytical tool for biochemists and molecular biologists seeking the protein molecules which are the machinery of all living species.

The science of mass spectrometry services many disciplines but offers most potential in biotechnology and medical research where researchers are developing new methods for diagnosing and treating human disease.

Launching the facility this afternoon, La Trobe University Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Tim Brown said the choice of equipment reflected a 12 - month global search for a suite of instruments offering multiple but complementary applications.

"We looked at every major supplier of proteomic instrumentation around the globe and asked them to test our complex protein samples. Usually you get high accuracy or high throughput. The gold standard is to try to have equipment that does both. These machines approach that," he said.

"There were some excellent pieces of equipment out there but the equipment we settled on collectively had the versatility to deliver high sensitivity, high accuracy and high throughput."

Like a prism that separates light into its component wavelengths, mass spectrometers separate, detect and digitise ions generated in a mass analyser from sample molecules - yielding vital analytical data on the molecular weight and abundance of the molecule in a sample. They determine the mass of a molecule by measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of its ions, with each piece of equipment offering one or more of a diversity of sophisticated methods for achieving this end.

Data generated on protein molecules particularly hold promise for CRC BT researchers at La Trobe and their partners at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, the Women and Children Research Institute in Adelaide, the Institute for Medical and Veterinary Sciences in Adelaide and the Mater Medical Research Institute and Mater Health Services in Brisbane. These collaborators and their commercial partners, Amgen and BD Biosciences from the USA seek to identify and profile hundreds or perhaps thousands of unknown "biomarkers" for specific diseases including cancer, and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis.

La Trobe's Mass Spectrometry Facility Manager Mr Vince Murphy said the new facility held particular promise for CRC BT research because of its combined capabilities and its ability to look for new "post-translational modifications" of target proteins. He said the most obvious likely beneficiary was cancer and autoimmune disease research.

"Some cancers are explained by DNA damage or DNA mutation but not all of them; a lot are due to inappropriate expression of cell surface proteins that control the proliferation of cells. There may be underlying genetics but it's really about regulation at the protein level, and that's what we're looking at with this equipment."

Mr Murphy said the facility would be invaluable for the large body of molecular research being carried out in the University's Biochemistry and Chemistry departments and for collaborative or commercial research by researchers outside the University. The facility includes four new mass spectrometers and one pre-existing machine re-located from CSIRO Parkville to La Trobe. See the specifications.

Photo opportunity

Mass Spectrometry Facility Manager Mr Vince Murphy and staff will demonstrate the equipment at the launch. Arrangements can be made for advance photographs/filming.

(Launch venue: Seminar Room 351, Physical Sciences Building 4, Level 3, School of Molecular Sciences. Time: 3 p.m.)

Further information

Mr Vince Murphy
T: 612 3 9479 2593
M: 0422 947 910




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