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Three people diagnosed with liver cancer on the same day in the same hospital are likely to have different prognoses, tumor growth rates, and responses to a given cancer drug. In many respects, they have three different diseases. Now a tool that is a mainstay in chemistry and physics labs may help doctors characterize each patient’s cancer in great detail and ensure that the entire tumor can be removed during surgery.

The tool is mass spectrometry, which can quickly identify any molecule in a sample by measuring its mass and charge. The technique has great potential for molecular biology and personalized medicine, because the ability to identify a broad spectrum of molecules in a tissue or even inside a cell would give an intimately detailed picture of its activities and disease state. But traditional mass spectrometry isn’t practical in the clinic, since it involves intensive sample preparation and must be done inside a vacuum. During a reading, the sample breaks apart, destroying spatial information about where each molecule was in the sample.

In a few months, Purdue and Vanderbilt researchers expect to begin experimental use of mass spectrometry in the operating room. They will use a sample collector that works in open air and leaves tissue intact. Called DESI, the collector was developed by Purdue chemistry professor R. Graham Cooks in 2003, and can be used with commercial MS machines. Along with Vanderbilt biochemist Richard Caprioli, Cooks is testing the device on human tumor biopsies to characterize the chemical differences between tumor and normal tissue and between aggressive and slow-growing tumors.

[Click here for images of the DESI collector.]

Pathologists often examine a biopsy under a microscope during surgery to help doctors remove the entire tumor. In DESI’s initial clinical tests, it will be used to scan biopsies alongside the pathologist, to verify and refine its ability to delineate tumor borders.

Cooks and Caprioli can make a crude map of a tissue biopsy surface by performing a DESI reading at multiple spots, each about 500 micrometers in area. First, a hose sprays the tissue surface with a mist of charged solvent particles. The solvent picks up molecules from the surface, imparting them with an electrical charge, and is then sucked up by another hose into the vacuum chamber of a mass spectrometer, where it is analyzed.

[Click here for examples of mass spectrometry images.]

“In the cases we’ve looked at, which include different grades of tumor, as well as tumor and nontumor regions, you have a very characteristic molecular fingerprint,” Cooks says.

During surgery, DESI could be used to create molecular profiles of tumors that would allow doctors to personalize their patients’ post-operative care. Caprioli believes mass spectrometry can play an important role in such personalized medicine. DESI can be used to perform rapid, extensive analyses of not only biopsies but also urine and blood samples and the surface of human skin, and it could detect molecular markers of diseases such as cancer much earlier on.

Genomics and proteomics – personalized medical tools that examine a person’s genome and what proteins his or her cells produce – are important, but are limited because they get at only a few kinds of molecules. Using mass spectrometry, a doctor could look for non-protein, non-DNA markers of disease in urine, blood, or biopsy to determine how aggressive a patient’s cancer is. “We want to look at all classes of molecules together,” Caprioli explains, which mass spectrometry does well.

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Tagged: Biomedicine, mass spectrometry

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