This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

$2 million in stimulus funding supports
purchase of two mass spectrometers

Chemist Troy Wood hopes UB’s new mass spectrometers will help researchers identify new biological markers of diseases such as cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. Photo: DOUGLAS LEVERE

Published: February 17, 2011

Two new, high-powered mass spectrometers worth a total of more than $2 million will enable UB scientists to conduct a variety of health and environmental studies without outsourcing lab work to institutions outside Western New York.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus, is funding the purchase of both pieces of equipment: a $390,000 inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) and a $1.74 million Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer (FTICR-MS).

The ICP-MS has been fully operational since September. The FTICR-MS is scheduled to be up and running this month.

The Department of Chemistry’s instrumentation center is housing the new acquisitions, which will facilitate experiments on topics ranging from human disease to how nanoparticles, including quantum dots, might affect the environment.

Faculty, staff and students from across the university, along with outside businesses and organizations, will be able to use the new technology for a fee. Some scientists already are completing projects on campus that they previously had to outsource, a change that is keeping valuable research dollars in the local economy.

Mass spectrometers employ various techniques to determine the molecular makeup of scientific samples.

The FTICR-MS that UB is installing detects the mass of charged molecules by measuring their motion in a 12-Tesla magnetic field, which is nearly a quarter-million times stronger than Earth’s magnetic field.

Funding for the FTICR-MS came from a National Institutes of Health stimulus grant, and scientists from UB and Roswell Park Cancer Institute will use the device to probe the structures of molecules that play roles in human disease.

Specifically, the FTICR-MS will help researchers identify chemical changes that occur in proteins in the human body during post-translational modification, a process that influences how diseases progress. The new instrument also will enable scientists to create chemical maps of the surface of diseased tissues like tumors.

“By comparing these with healthy tissues, we will be able to find new biological markers of diseases as varied as cancer, autism and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Troy Wood, associate professor of chemistry, who led efforts to obtain the new equipment. “This could not only improve disease diagnosis, but also allow us to follow how diseased tissue chemically changes upon various drug treatments.

“I anticipate that the new FTICR will provide crucial molecular insights in the field of chemistry and chemical biology,” says Wood, whose doctoral advisor, Alan Marshall, was a co-inventor of Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry.

The ICP-MS, which UB purchased with stimulus money from the National Science Foundation, has a laser ablation system for analyzing solid samples and a liquid chromatography system for separating and identifying different metals in biological samples—a process that provides critical information for scientists studying the toxicity of metals.

The instrument will enable researchers in chemistry, biology, geology and engineering to investigate such topics as climate change, the remediation of heavy metal pollutants and the geochemical makeup of volcanic rocks.

Diana Aga, professor of chemistry who led efforts to obtain the ICP-MS, is using the equipment to examine quantum dots, semiconductor nanoparticles made of metals such as cadmium or zinc, or materials such as selenides or sulfides.

Scientists today are examining how quantum dots can improve range of technologies, including solar cells, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and medical imaging. Aga’s work focuses on what will happen when society begins to dispose of consumer products containing quantum dots. A research team she heads is looking at how quantum dots move through soil and water, and how the particles accumulate in plants and earthworms.

“Because nanomaterials are up-and-coming materials, we know very little about their environmental impacts,” Aga says. “If quantum dots get into the environment as waste, what can they do to plants? Would they contaminate the water? Will they have deleterious effects on ecological systems? It’s not a problem yet because they haven’t been mass-produced. But we know that quantum dots will have a lot of applications in the future, and we need to be proactive and know—before they become a problem—if there is going to be a problem.”

Funding for the research comes from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which provided Aga’s team with a $400,000 grant to investigate the environmental fate and transport of quantum dots and metal oxide nanoparticles. Her experience with the project shows why it’s important for research centers like UB to acquire and maintain high-end instruments like the ICP-MS.

“We got the funding from the EPA before we ever got the funding from the NSF for the mass spectrometer, so at first, we would send our samples out to be analyzed,” Aga says. “Finally, we got this instrument, so that gives us new capabilities to do more innovative work and apply for new grants in the future. Having immediate access to the ICP-MS will really give us a big boost in our research.

“Other than my research, I also want to emphasize that the ICP-MS will actually give a lot of capability to, for example, my colleagues in the geology department,” Aga adds. “We have a very strong volcanology and geochemistry group at UB, and the ICP-MS is actually an essential instrument for them. Before, they had to send their samples outside of UB. But now they can do a lot more because it’s in-house. It’s cheaper and quicker.”