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Adorable little babies saved by mass spectrometry

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I haven’t jumped back into science blogging in almost a year now. So I figured I may as well start with an eye-catching headline.

Wait, I was going to tell you about analytical chemistry, right? It’s a field of study where we do exactly what it sounds like: We analyze chemicals. You may also see the term chemical analysis which makes it a bit more clear. If you have a sample, and inside that sample there are substances that you need to identify (what is it?) or quantify (how much?), you turn to an analytical chemist.

One of the analytical chemist’s tools is the mass spectrometer, or MS. Depending on the type of MS, you can start with a solid, liquid or gaseous sample and answer questions about the atoms or molecules inside of it. But why do you care? Well here are some examples of questions that might involve MS in answering them:

  • Does this multivitamin actually match what it says on the ingredients label?
  • Are there pesticides or toxic heavy metals in this produce that was grown half a world away in a country I’ve never been to?
  • Was this man’s death the result of a poisoning?
  • Are these children’s toys really lead-free and BPA-free?
  • Is the soil on this vacant lot too contaminated to plant a community garden?
  • Are there dangerous impurities in these street drugs?

So where do adorable little babies fit into this? And believe me, I have a stake in this, because last year my beautiful niece was brought into this world. There are a number of rare disorders that any child could be born with, and these are not always obvious to parents or health care providers. However these disorders do leave chemical traces in the blood or urine that can be detected very efficiently by MS. Critically, these disorders are treatable, but health outcomes are significantly improved with early detection. All newborns in Canada receive some type of newborn screening although the number of conditions detected vary from province to province.

One such disorder is called phenylketonuria or PKU. An individual with PKU cannot eat normal sources of dietary protein. All proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, and one in particular called phenylalanine is the culprit here. Most of us have an enzyme that transforms phenylalanine into another essential amino acid called tyrosine. PKU means that the enzyme is missing and instead phenylalanine builds up in the body. This buildup interferes with brain function, and untreated children will tend to be misread as developmentally disabled, hyperactive, and plagued with other lifelong chronic health problems. The blood levels of phenylalanine and tyrosine can be compared in an MS-based newborn screening program to detect PKU as soon as possible. Those with PKU must eat a low-protein diet supplemented with specially designed protein formulations which exclude phenylalanine. While this is not an easy road to follow, early detection and treatment of PKU can give a child the chance to grow up with normal brain function and live out a healthy life.

Mass spectrometry may not be adorable in its own right, but it is a powerful type of analysis that can save lives. Do you ever wonder what other secrets may lie in the innumerable atoms and molecules that make up the world around us?


Written by Charles in Toronto

September 8, 2013 at 4:32 PM

Posted in Chemistry

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Imagine yourself in a tunnel, on a bicycle.

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Imagine yourself riding through a long narrow tunnel, on a bicycle. You enter the tunnel with the reasonable expectation that you’re going to ride straight out the other side. But then something absolutely bizarre happens. A crosswind starts blowing at you from the right side of the tunnel. You find yourself being uncontrollably shoved towards the wall on the left-hand side. And then the wind shifts, and it starts blowing you towards the left-hand side. And so it continues oscillating back and forth, such you find you’re having trouble maintaining a course straight through, but you manage to just barely miss crashing into the wall and you get through the other end.

Okay, let’s rewind. Imagine you’re riding a HOVERbike. The crosswinds are now coming from above and below as well. And there is a lineup of other people on other hoverbikes too, each trying to navigate through the tunnel. If you’re not fearing for your life right now, you start to notice that the winds are having different effects on different bikes. The really light ones are losing control and crashing into the walls. The bigger, heavy-duty bikes, though, something else is happening. They’re swaying side to side, but every time they get close to a wall, they swing back the other way, and they’re all making it through the tunnel. It actually seems like the tunnel is (rather gruesomely) sorting the bikes by how heavy they are.

Alright, so actually I lied. You’re not on a hoverbike. You’re a molecule, and you have an electric charge. And it’s not the wind: it’s a powerful, rapidly changing electric field that’s pushing you back and forth in a chamber that’s designed to sort those molecules. You’re inside a machine called a mass spectrometer. And I work in a chemistry lab that has three different kinds of mass spectrometers.

A lot of people I know write on blogs and Twitter about the work they do, especially in regards to politics, technology, arts and culture, and social issues. Somehow working in an analytical chemistry lab has never really seemed conducive to doing the same. But most of my social circle agrees that they want public policy decisions to be based on sound science, so why not try and engage people in discussions about what I actually do with my life?

So I’ve decided to make an effort to talk about chemistry in terms that non-scientists can relate to. If you keep reading my posts, you will find out:

  • What analytical chemistry means, and why you should care
  • How mass spectrometry has affected your life in ways you may not realize
  • That science is not all that scary after all, and that you want to know more

I hope you enjoyed this post, and please consult me first before you go riding your hoverbike in long narrow tunnels.

Written by Charles in Toronto

September 29, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Posted in Chemistry

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