Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC)

Making Innovation Central to Rhode Island's Future Gina M. Raimondo, Governor

Bringing State-of-the-Art Mass Spectrometry to Rhode Island Researchers

Published on May 1, 2008

Armed with $150,000 from the Rhode Island Research Alliance, Brown University researcher and professor Dr. Edward Hawrot, along with researchers from the University of Rhode Island, Salve Regina University and Rhode Island College were able to combine this with some other funds including some from the NSF RI-EPSCoR award to purchase a state-of-the-art mass spectrometer.

The equipment, a Thermo LTQ tandem mass spectrometer, worth about $400,000, is being used to identify protein constituents of complex mixtures of proteins from biological samples. While the concept of mass spectrometry isn't new ?? the technology has advanced rapidly in recent years to keep pace with the demands of the new field of "proteomics." The new mass spectrometer, housed and maintained at Brown University's EPSCoR Center for Proteomics, can identify hundreds of proteins a day using an electro-spray injected tandem technology linked to a powerful computer server.

"Without this technology, it would typically take a researcher up to six months to identify one protein," says Principal Investigator Dr. Edward Hawrot, a Brown University researcher whose research laboratory's staff is funded by the NIH. "This mass spectrometer can identify and catalogue tens of thousands of proteins in that timeframe."

The only mass spectrometer of its kind in the state, the equipment is centrally housed in Providence for researchers from various educational institutions to use for the study of proteins in their research.

After purchasing the machine this summer, Hawrot hired Dr. James Clifton, who now manages the mass spectrometer for Hawrot and any other qualified researcher within the state who needs the technology. "This mass spectrometer is an extremely specialized instrument with the highest mass accuracy and resolution available," Hawrot says. "These instruments can also perform tandem mass spectrometry, a technique that generates peptide amino acid sequence information to facilitate accurate protein identification."

The equipment itself is smaller than previous versions of a mass spectrometer, says Hawrot, and much more accurate. Working the machine ?? which resembles a supercomputer ?? Clifton injects a peptide mixture into the mass spectrometer, resulting in hundreds of computer-generated matches for possible types of proteins based on genomic information.

Hawrot plans to use the machine for a study on the effect of nicotine on neuronal proteins. "Hopefully, we can get a better understanding of the science behind nicotine addiction," he says.

Hawrot will use the mass spectrometer to compare the protein interactions of a specific receptor protein in mice before and after nicotine exposure. Understanding how the protein is influenced by nicotine "could identify drug targets for smoking cessation therapy as well as provide insight into nicotine's beneficial aspects such as cognitive enhancement and protection against Alzheimer's disease," Hawrot says.

Eventually, Hawrot says, the equipment will be used in part to help scientists better understand proteins and their role in diseases. Recently, mass spectrometry has been the major workhorse for protein investigations, especially as they relate to human disease. Now that Rhode Island's researchers have access to this critical equipment, it is only a matter of time before the researchers' sound understanding of proteins will result in improved medical and pharmacological care for Rhode Islanders.

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