Over four decades, the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory has been a part of countless research projects—in a range of disciplines—conducted at the university.
“A mass spectrometer is a scientific instrument that can identify components in a sample and tell you how much is present or how the structures have changed,” said Susan Weintraub, Ph.D., core director of the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. They are used across the whole range of biomedicine—from basic research to translational investigations and clinical analyses.
In 2014, the lab became a part of a UT System-wide Proteomics Core Network that links proteomics facilities at participating institutions with researchers and students across the entire system.
Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, their structures and functions. Proteins are large, complex molecules that play essential roles in every living cell. A mass spectrometer can be used to identify a protein and gain information about its chemical makeup by studying either the whole protein or its component parts. The Mass Spectrometry Laboratory has five of these instruments on the Long Campus and two more at the university’s South Texas Research Facility. Together, they make it possible to analyze all classes of biomolecules—both large and small.
Last year, the lab received its newest mass spectrometer, a Thermo Scientific Orbitrap Fusion Lumos, which delivers an increase in sensitivity and speed of analysis across a wider range of protein concentrations. It also more accurately measures the mass of the protein or component. These enhanced capabilities make it possible to analyze a larger number of samples and experimental groups in a shorter amount of time and obtain more information than is possible with other instruments.
“With the new Lumos, we can now do analyses that many researchers have never imagined possible,” Dr. Weintraub said. “Taken together, this purchase will provide the analytical capabilities needed to support a much wider range of projects for UT System investigators.”
In an average year, Dr. Weintraub and her team of three work with about 30 university investigators, and another 20 or more from other institutions.
Sara Espinoza, M.D., M.Sc., associate professor of medicine, researches why some people become frail as they age. She wanted a comprehensive screen of proteins secreted from cells that had been forced into a state of rest, or senescence. She turned to the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory for help.
“Because the mass spectrometer is so powerful and you can look at hundreds to thousands of proteins at a time, it seemed like the ideal technology to use,” she said. “I wanted an unbiased screen of the proteins without a preconceived hypothesis of what I was going to find. That was actually the first time anyone had ever used a mass spectrometer to look at secreted proteins in a frailty study. That was novel.”
The results from the mass spectrometer revealed that cells from frail people secreted more inflammatory proteins than cells from those who were in good health.
Dr. Espinoza is now focusing on specific proteins that were identified in the study.
“We’re laying the groundwork for the future,” she said. “We’re making discoveries for how we can help people age better. If we take these little baby steps using the best tools available—one of them being the new mass spectrometer—it gets us closer to making really impactful discoveries to improve aging.”
Dr. Espinoza will continue turning to the Mass Spectrometry Laboratory as her research develops.
“It will be critical to my research in the future,” she said.