Along with celebrating its official opening at Carleton University in Ottawa in late September, the Carleton Mass Spectrometry Centre (CMSC) celebrated the early success of a new growth model it has initiated, which offers a fresh approach to cooperation between academia and industry.
Located in the university’s department of chemistry, the CMSC began as a partnership with Agilent Technologies. The state-of-art centre houses nine mass spectrometers – seven are coupled to high performance liquid chromatography systems, and two are coupled to gas chromatography systems – along with bioinformatics tools.
Jeff Smith, an associate professor in the university’s chemistry department and the CMSC’s director, uses mass spec for medical applications, such as studying how proteins react to diseases and how they respond to certain treatments.
The centre is using a new analytical method developed by Smith and Jeff Manthorpe, who is associate professor of synthetic organic chemistry at the university. Known as TrEnDi (trimethylation enhancement using diazomethane), the method increases the sensitivity of mass spec analyses by assigning a fixed, permanent positive charge to amino groups. It allows for increased sequence coverage and peptide detection in proteomics analyses, and better detection in metabolomics and lipidomics analyses.
“This partnership will enable Agilent to develop innovative mass spectrometry-based omics workflows for life science research,” said Steve Fischer, Agilent’s marketing director, academia and government. “It will make possible new biological discoveries using integrated biology to understand the mechanisms of disease.”
Beyond this academic work, which also includes the research of some three dozen colleagues from Carlton, Smith decided to seek partnerships with private manufacturers. By partnering with industry, he believed it would help to open up new avenues for research funding, monetize the downtime when the instruments would otherwise be sitting idle, and provide industrial partners with cost-effective access to the most advanced technology.
With this creative approach, “scientists will be able to use the sophisticated technologies in our centre to advance their research into small molecules, proteomics, metabolomics and lipidomics,” he said. “With advanced instrumentation and application support from Agilent, we hope to promote new discoveries in biochemistry with the potential to transform medicine, agriculture and industry.”
To that end, he hired Jeff Smirle as the CMSC’s business manager, who began approaching potential industrial partners, including a local craft brewery called Broadhead Brewing Company. A partnership was formed, and is supported by a $25,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).
The partners are now in the middle of a six-month project analyzing Broadhead beers for a number of factors including chemical composition, container efficiency and more. Mass spectrometry is being used to obtain the molecular fingerprint of beer right out of the tank with an optimal taste. By analyzing how the chemistry changes over time at a range of temperatures and in different types of containers, the brewery will be better able to advise its distributors and customers how to store the product optimally.
“We would not have been able to get this type of detailed information about our beer without this collaboration,” said Josh Larocque, Broadhead’s head brewer and co-owner. “We want to do everything we can to improve our product, and this sounded like a great idea from the get-go.”
Other industrial partners are also coming forward – for example, the centre has formed an alliance with the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance to promote its capabilities. As a result, the centre was recentlycontacted by a national retail chain that wanted to conduct quality control analyses on perfume products. One round of testing has been completed on a fee-for-service basis and more could follow.
In addition, Scintrex Trace Corp., which manufactures instruments used at airports to detect minute amounts of explosives and narcotics, has also signed on to work with the centre.
So far, the model of running the centre as an analytical resource for both researchers and industrial partners looks like a success, Smith said.
“The beauty of this approach is that we can direct our efforts toward helping industry partners improve their processes, which helps Canadian companies and the economy, and at the same time it generates revenue which we will put toward the acquisition of new infrastructure that will help Carleton become a research leader,” he said. “It’s a big circle and the sky is the limit in terms of who we can work with and what we can accomplish.”