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UT-Austin, Southwestern U Developing New Biomarker Screening Technology

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Researchers at The University of Texas, Austin and Southwestern University will use a $730,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a new method for rapidly screening blood samples for protein biomarkers, UT-Austin said last week.

The three-stage screening method will involve using a chip with capture agents that bind to specific compounds in a blood sample, an ultraviolet light to sever those chemical bonds, and an electrospray that transfers the compounds into a mass spectrometer for analysis.

The mass spectrometry data could then be used to measure the presence and quality of different proteins “on a scale, and with a speed, that wasn’t possible before,” Jennifer Brodbelt, a professor at UT-Austin and principal investigator on the project, said in a statement.

The method could be used to identify markers of specific diseases such as cancer or heart disease, and to find broader metabolic patterns correlated with conditions such as aging or obesity, according to the researchers.

"There are technologies right now that are very effective at separating and analyzing the different compounds in a blood sample, but they tend to be relatively slow," Brodbelt said. "What we're developing is a chip-based method, where entire classes of compounds are captured on the chips and then all the compounds are released and analyzed by mass spectrometry in just a few seconds."

Brodbelt added that the strategy is different than what might be pursued by molecular biologists or biochemists in that it seeks a “more generalized profile" instead of focusing on one or two proteins at a time.

"There are so many other areas where you'd want to do profiling," she said. "It might involve looking for pesticides as part of an environmental study, or doing protein-related work or drug profiling work. If this approach is successful, I imagine other groups will try to develop these chips as well."

Brodbelt also said that she and her collaborators, Southwestern professors Frank Guizec and Lynn Guizec, are currently focusing their specific studies on aging.

"We're trying to develop maps that can correlate the progression of aging with metabolites that might be circulating in your blood," said Brodbelt.

"These could be small molecules that increase in quantity as you age, or actually change in composition as one ages," she added.