Dennis Dean, director of the Institute for Biomedical and Public Health Sciences (IBPHS), announced the creation of a Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator to support the university's life sciences research infrastructure. Thanks to funds from the Commonwealth Research Initiative, Virginia Tech has acquired two advanced mass spectrometry systems.

Mass spectrometry, which chemist have been using for some time, has become increasingly popular for use in life science research, such as tracking proteins during the infection process.

“Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique that permits rapid and accurate identification of compounds by determining their size and how they break apart when forced to collide with high energy gases,” Dean said. “Recent technological improvements permit the rapid identification and quantification of biological macromolecules, such as proteins, using extremely small amounts of materials. This ability permits rapid advances in the biological sciences as we can answer questions that were previously impossible to address.”

President Charles Steger noted, "The Commonwealth Research Initiatives' one-time funds are very instrumental in enabling us to enhance our research capacity, to remain current in the life sciences as we continue to respond to national health priorities and needs, such as preventing and combating infectious disease. This critical infrastructure is also instrumental in our ability to attract top tier faculty members and students and to provide those students with the most modern skills and relevant research experience."

The Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator will be used to do “proteomics” – the study of proteins, their functions, and their interactions, as well as “metabolomics” ¬– the study of the metabolites present in an organism at any point in time. “For any particular organism, different proteins and metabolites are produced at different times, in different amounts, in different tissues, and in response to different conditions,” Dean said.

“Many pathogens, such as bacteria, infect a host – us, our pets, our crops -- and modify the host’s proteins, which can cause disease,” noted Richard Helm, associate professor of biochemistry, and one of researchers at Virginia Tech who does proteomics research. “These instruments allow us to determine how the proteins are modified and determine their life history. The goal is to discover and understand the chemical and physical processes involved in all sorts of stress responses, from a human cell responding to a bacterial infection, to a terrestrial microbe adjusting to intense sunlight and a lack of water. We have the ability to create not only a protein profile but a metabolite profile as well. These are extremely exciting times for us.”

“The attack of one organism (host) by another organism (pathogen) involves a complex series of events that is broadly described as ‘host-pathogen interactions’,” Dean added. “During these interactions biochemical and morphological changes often occur in both the host and the pathogen. For example, host pathogen interactions often result in changes in proteins that are produced by both the host and the pathogen and such changes can be manifested by alterations in cell shape or tissue organization. Facilities available at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI), the newly acquired proteomics equipment, as well as imaging equipment we are now implementing, enables Virginia Tech researchers to study such host pathogen interactions using the very best technological methods available in the world. We have made huge steps toward improving Virginia Tech's competitive edge in this research arena."

Helm, who will oversee the Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator, explains the incubator concept. “This will be an open facility where interested students and investigators can come and discuss their research problems and ideas. We can then formulate a plan to provide the data that can be used in research proposals and/or publications. Eventually this will lead to new grants and contracts where investigators collaborate directly with the incubator. Virginia Tech’s teaching and learning environment will also utilize these tools, providing our future life scientists hands-on training in this growing field,” Helm said. "This equipment not only improves our research capacity but also greatly enhances the marketability of our students"

“We expect that the research incubator will help individual investigators quickly gain the insight necessary to design and interpret mass spectrometry-based experiments,” Dean said. “In addition, it will help interdisciplinary groups do large projects and respond to national challenges and federally-funded projects. Federally funded research further supports infrastructure growth, as well as faculty and students, and benefits regional economies.”

The equipment is currently housed in the Fralin Biotechnology Center and is now available for university-wide research focused on fundamental and applied life science research. The equipment systems are a “matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization-tandem time-of-flight mass analyzer” (MALDI-TOF/TOF) and a “quadrupole-quadrupole-ion trap” hybrid mass spectrometer that is interfaced with a nanoflow liquid chromatography system.

Building bridges and capacity for life science research

According to Dean, “We collectively, across the campus, agreed on acquiring equipment that would provide research infrastructure for many units, regardless of their size. Our vision is that this is the way to help relatively small innovative projects grow into major research efforts”.

“It was a grass roots effort to provide the infrastructure necessary to perform the science of the 21st century, as well as the environment needed to attract high quality faculty,” said Helm.

The Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator equipment complements related equipment at Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) and the Departments of Biological Sciences and Chemistry. Other equipment purchased with CRI support includes a genome sequencer in VBI, X-ray crystallography enhancements, and advanced separation and imaging equipment. “Bruno Sobral (director of VBI), Roop Mahajan (director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science), and myself are working together to ensure that equipment and expertise throughout this campus are widely available and managed in a way that can help promote and sustain biomedical research on this campus,” said Dean.

Commonwealth Research Initiative

In 2004, the Commonwealth of Virginia asked members of the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate a proposal to expand an evolving collaborative program for host-pathogen-environment interaction research at Virginia Tech. Following their recommendations, Virginia Tech has developed and implemented the multidisciplinary approaches that are essential for anticipating conditions under which new infectious diseases will emerge and old ones will re-emerge. Academy members rated the proposal as having a very high potential for developing nationally and internationally recognized research programs, building upon the demonstrated success of VBI.

In spring 2006, an unprecedented research initiative received bi-partisan support from the Virginia General Assembly. The research initiative provides over $200 million to state universities for the 2006-08 biennium, including funds for specific research projects. For Virginia Tech, $15 million was appropriated to directly enhance the university’s research programs in science and engineering with a special focus on nanotechnology and host-pathogen-environment-interactions. An additional $11 million was appropriated for research equipment, and funds are also provided to support graduate students and new research buildings.


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