New instrument to advance stroke and cancer research at Carleton

Carleton Prof. Jeff Smith is pictured here with the university’s new mass spectrometer – an instrument which may provide more insight into cancer and strokes. (Christopher King Photo)

The Carleton University biochemistry department has a new instrument in its labs which may provide more insight into cancer and strokes.

The $600,000 machine is called a mass spectrometer and “is essentially a very powerful balance that weighs molecules,” according to Prof. Jeff Smith.

Smith was one of four professors awarded $530,778 by the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) in February and chose to put the money towards a mass spectrometer. The desk-size instrument, although not fully installed yet, is located in the Steacie Building.

The instrument charges a molecule so that it becomes an ion and puts the molecule into a field of the same polarity. In doing so, the direction of the ion can be controlled in order to determine how much of each element is contained in the ion and, essentially, identify it.

“It answers two questions,” says Smith. “What is it made of? And how much is there of each component?”

Mass spectrometers are currently used in the forensics, security, pharmaceutical and medical fields. This hybrid triple quadrupole-linear ion trap mass spectrometer will be used by Smith for two projects investigating protein changes in the cells of cancer and stroke patients.

The first project, in collaboration with the director of biochemistry at Carleton, Prof. Bill Willmore, will use the instrument to examine the differing levels of protein in healthy cells versus cells lacking oxygen. This research will be applied to strokes where it is not necessarily the blood clot that kills the patient but instead the lack of oxygen to the brain. This occurs when cells kill themselves because of a lack of oxygen, through a process called apoptosis.

“If we understand that process more, we might be able to come up with ways to either reverse it before the cell fully kills itself or to administer some kind of a drug to a patient at risk of a stroke so that process is less likely to happen,” says Smith.

The mass spectrometer will be used in Smith’s second project, alongside the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, to look at how altered protein levels in leukemic blood cells make them cancerous. The OHRI also has a couple of drugs it is testing and the project will also study what happens to the proteins in cancerous cells when treated with the drugs.

With strokes and cancer as major leading causes of death worldwide, Smith says the new instrument will allow for research that could affect many lives.

“This is something that has the potential for dramatic impact from a health perspective. Gaining insight into our own human biology of how our cells function and why diseases occur will lead to more effective therapies down the road.”

Smith says he is thrilled about the independence the machine brings to his lab.

“I’m excited that it’s going to open the doors to different types of experiments we can do here,” says Smith. “In fact, not every university has one of these types that I just got, so there will be some unique angle for different types of experiments we can do that won’t be available at every other university.”

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