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Your faculty and staff news since 1965
May 9, 2005
Volume 40, Number 10

New mass spectrometry facility key to research

By Steve Carr

From left, Vice President for Research Terry Yates, Chemistry Prof. Chris Enke, President Louis Caldera, Acting Provost Reed Dasenbrock and Chemistry Prof. John Engen help unveil UNM’s new $1.2 million mass spectrometry facility. Photo by Steve Carr.

A campus-wide, collaborative effort has resulted in a new state-of-the-art mass spectrometry facility housed in the Chemistry Department. The $1.2 million facility will provide mass measurements for newly developed molecules and drug compounds, analysis of protein patterns in disease and cancer diagnosis and characterization of materials as a few of its capabilities. The facility is a key component in basic research support for any university involved in research.

“It’s a very powerful instrument,” said Chemistry Professor Chris Enke, who along with colleague John Engen will direct the facility. “John and I wanted a center like this for quite some time and were able to finally make it a reality. It’s a consortium program with New Mexico State and other institutions in the state.”

Mass spectrometry basically consists of weighing molecules. Molecules weigh little compared to everyday life measurements such as pounds and kilograms. A special unit called a dalton is used. One dalton equals one trillionth of a quadrillionth of a pound. The detection of compounds can be accomplished with very minute quantities meaning compounds can be identified at very low concentrations (one part in a trillion) in chemically complex mixtures.

Researchers first ionize a molecule by giving it an electrical charge. Once it’s an ion, researchers can use its interaction with magnetic fields, electric fields, travel time or other techniques to measure the mass. Different ionization techniques can be used. One of the main factors in choosing which technique to use is whether the molecule will disintegrate at high temperatures. The name given to a particular technique usually points to the ionization method used.

Some of the instrument’s uses include detecting and identifying the use of steroids in athletes; forensic analyses such as conformation and quantifying abused drugs; determining how drugs are used by the body; helping synthesize new drug compounds; identifying structures, including structures of biomolecules such as carbohydrates, nucleic acids and steroids; and determining changes in proteins in disease states to make diagnoses.

“There are no other mass spectrometers in the state that are as sophisticated and available for general use,” Engen said. “We want this new facility to be accessible to users from across disciplines in all institutions in New Mexico.”

The facility is supported by federal funding from the National Institutes of Health and UNM and the State of New Mexico entities including the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development, College of Arts and Sciences, Health Sciences Center, UNM Cancer Research and Treatment Center, School of Engineering, Chemical and Nuclear Engineering, Center of Biomedical Research Excellence and Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence.