A simple guide to Mass Spectrometry by Dr David Boocock

A simple guide to Mass Spectrometry by Dr David Boocock


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Dr David Boocock is one of our scientists here at The John van Geest Cancer Research Centre. He has a wonderful talent for explaining the complex science in ‘layman’s terms’ and has written up a little intro into why Protein research is so important in cancer research.

“The type of molecules that I’m interested in are proteins – these are the tiny machines that make living things function. Each one of the 100 trillion cells that make up your body has many thousands of different proteins in them, all carrying out different tasks that keep you alive.

In cancer, the cells of the body have gone wrong somehow and start to grow unchecked and multiply out of control (a group of these cells is called a tumour) and after some time these cells, in certain types of cancer, can start to spread away from where they formed and travel around the body and cause more tumours. Now, cancer cells are not quite like the normal cells – they make slightly different proteins and don’t work in the way they were designed to anymore. If we can identify these miniscule amounts of cancer proteins, for example in someone’s blood, we may well be able to test early on whether someone has cancer or not. The earlier we find it the better the chance of treatment working.

So how do we go about identifying them? In our laboratory we use

protien 2something called a mass spectrometer or “mass spec”.”


What is mass spectrometry and why do we use it in the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre?

“Well… put very simply it’s all about weighing things. Tiny things, that make up everything around you and inside you. These things are called molecules. Now single molecules are, in general, very small. We’re talking really, really tiny – you may think a grain of rice is small – but the sort of things we are measuring in the lab are over a million times smaller than that! Now, obviously, you can’t easily see these single protein molecules to identify what they are, and you can’t put one on a set of scales to weigh it.

The weight of a molecule is referred to by scientists as its mass and a mass spec electronically weighs molecules by sorting them into groups that all have the same mass. A molecule of water for example, weighs 18 mass units, drinking alcohol 46.1 and aspirin 180.2. Now imagine a mixture of these three things (apart from making a good night out!) being put into a mass spec, being sorted and what you would see on the screen would be three peaks on a chart – one for each different mass. The different heights could tell you how much of each there was in the mixture.

This is what we doprotien 3 in the JvGCRC but on a bigger, more complex scale – blood is a mixture of hundreds of thousands of different molecules, which are sorted in the mass spec into their different masses. From this (after a great deal of complex calculations) we can then work out what they are, how much of them there are and if there are proteins in blood from cancer patients that don’t appear in blood from healthy people. It is a bit like playing find the needle in the haystack, where the haystacks are the size of a city and the needle is straw coloured!

The new mass spectrometer we have just taken delivery of in the JvGCRC will take our research to the next level.”

The instrument, the first in the UK, is an AB SCIEX TripleTof ® 6600 and is worth more than £450,000!

Protein research is only one of the areas we develop here at John van Geest Cancer Research Centre to help early diagnosis, giving patients a better chance of survival. Keep your eyes peeled for future blogs which show are other areas of our research and what your donations are doing to help.

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