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Mass Spec Sample Prep Cut From Days to Minutes

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When Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory researchers invented the field of biological accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) in the late 1980s, the process of preparing the samples was time-consuming and cumbersome.

Physicists and biomedical researchers used torches, vacuum lines, special chemistries and high degrees of skill to convert biological samples into graphite targets that could then be run through the AMS system.

At that time, it took two days of work to prepare only eight samples.

As Livermore became a world leader in biological AMS work and was designated in 1999 as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) first National Resource for Biomedical Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, the technology underwent a series of upgrades.

However, during this past summer, Livermore scientists have made much more dramatic advances to the sample preparations and AMS operations that have been sought for years by the biomedical research and pharmaceutical communities.

Samples processed in minutes
The Livermore scientists also have developed a new and much-simplified biological AMS system that can be operated in almost routine laboratory use by biomedical researchers without the expertise of accelerator physicists.

Biological AMS is a technique in which carbon-14 is used as a tag to study ,with extreme precision and sensitivity , complex biological processes, such as cancer, molecular damage, drug and toxin behavior, nutrition and other areas.

The $3 million bio AMS system, funded by a 2011 NIH grant and located in LLNL's biomedical building, came online in July after it was delivered and assembled in less than a month.

It is expected sometime in 2016 that 90 percent of the samples run in the bio AMS instrument will be liquid samples and more than 100 samples per day could be run, said Graham Bench, the director of the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (CAMS).

"I've always thought that one of the biggest impediments to the widespread use of the bio AMS is that the system is complex and requires expert staff," Bench said. "The recent work we've done enables it to be run by biomedical scientists without the aid of accelerator physicists.

"Our whole technical goal for the bio AMS has been to make the instrument smaller, cheaper, faster and easier to operate."

Bench credited the NIH for its support of the biological AMS technology development and the accompanying biomedical research that has been undertaken.

"We're very excited about the possibilities and potential of individualized cancer therapy," Bench said, adding he believes it could be a huge growth area in the 21st century.

Ken Turteltaub, the leader of the Lab's Biosciences and Biotechnology Division (BBTD) and one of the original developers of the bio AMS process, notes that the primary goal of the center during the past five years has been to make the technology more accessible to biomedical and pharmaceutical researchers.

"These achievements are a big deal because they allow us to support real clinical studies.

"We have put a huge amount of focused effort into improving the machine's throughput, simplifying sample preparations and trying to automate the instrument. We succeeded through the development of a gas ion source and the development of our moving wire interface," Turteltaub said.