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Virginia Tech Creates Incubator to Train Next Generation of Mass Spec Researchers

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Virginia Tech last week said it has created a mass spectrometry center with the aim of training students and faculty to use mass specs and foster research in proteomics and metabolomics.
 
Currently housed in one of the school’s biotechnology laboratories, the Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator is expected to move into its permanent 600-square-foot space on the university’s Blacksburg campus in early 2008. There it will house four mass spectrometers with a fifth located in a laboratory that will be down the hall from the incubator.
 
The incubator is currently equipped with two mass spectrometers: an Applied Biosystems 4800 MALDI-TOF/TOF and an ABI 4000 Q TRAP, purchased with funds from Virginia’s Commonwealth Research Initiative, created last year to spur scientific research in that state’s colleges and universities.
 
A third instrument, a Thermo LCQ Deca XP ion trap mass spectrometer, also for use by the incubator’s staff, is located in a separate laboratory on campus. Two other instruments, an ABI 3200 and a 3200 Q Trap, donated by PPD Industries, a contract research organization based in Wilmington, NC, will also be part of the center, said Richard Helm, an associate professor of biochemistry who will oversee the incubator.
 
The creation of the incubator follows the creation of similar centers at other academic institutions in recent months focusing on proteomics-based research.
 
For instance, in the fall, Sweden’s Uppsala University created the Uppsala Berzelii Technology Center for Neurodiagnostics, which will try to develop new proteomics tools to study neurodegenerative diseases [See PM 10/12/06].
 
And in December, the National Foundation for Cancer Research announced the creation of a center at Vanderbilt University to use proteomic technologies to identify molecular targets for new cancer drug therapies and to monitor the distribution of drug compounds into tissues [See PM 12/21/06].
 
With proteomics and protein identification becoming an increasingly important part of life science research and the use of mass spectrometers becoming more widespread, it became evident to Virginia Tech officials that additional resources were needed to enable faculty and students to learn how to use mass spectrometers to conduct research, Helm said.
 
During recent years, he and his lab consistently received requests from other university members to analyze samples with mass spectrometers. In time, he began envisioning a facility that could foster a collaborative environment where all life science researchers could incorporate mass spectrometers in their work, he said.
 

“For doing quantitative work, for doing protein life histories, that’s an emerging technology, and that’s sort of the thing that we’re directing ourselves toward.”

“One of the things we’re attempting to do is link biologists to the mass spectrometrists, if you will,” Helm said. “Sometimes, that’s a difficult match to make because many times the molecular biologist doesn’t think in terms of mass spectra, and mass spectrometrists oftentimes don’t think cell experiments need to be done in a tissue flask or in a growth chamber.”
 
With the creation of the center, life science researchers at the university can consult with mass spectrometry experts early on to design experiments, which could help them avoid making mistakes that they will have to amend later on, Helm said.
 
In particular, he said, the incubator hopes to encourage researchers to use methods and techniques that many believe are necessary for proteomics research to move forward. 
 
“I would say that protein identification for an organism with a sequenced genome is a mature technology,” Helm said. “For doing quantitative work, for doing protein life histories, that’s an emerging technology, and that’s sort of the thing that we’re directing ourselves toward.”
 
Funding for the incubator was provided by the university and the Commonwealth Research Initiative, which provided a grant of $875,000 for equipment and other infrastructure costs.
 
The goal of the incubator is to become self-sufficient in two years through government research grants and contracts, Helm said.
 
At this point, there are no plans for the incubator to work with the private sector on research projects, he said, adding that Virginia Tech has a core research facility that conducts industry-directed research.
 
“At this point, we have not directed ourselves toward that,” Helm said.

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