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Under the Microscope: Steve Turner

Posted: 19 October 2011 | | No comments yet

Helen Difford, Editor, speaks exclusively to Steve Turner, CEO, Protea Biosciences

Based in Morgantown, West Virginia, US company Protea has spent the past 10 years developing new technologies to identify, characterise and quantify biomolecules – the products of living cells. With over 100 products, the company provides labs across the world with bioanalytical technology, with the goal to provide life science investigators with more comprehensive and reproducible datasets, with which to guide their research. Steve Turner, CEO, believes that one particular new technology, known as Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionisation (LAESI), can help researchers obtain data on their biological samples with no preparation or destruction of their precious biological sample.

Helen Difford, Editor, speaks exclusively to Steve Turner, CEO, Protea BiosciencesBased in Morgantown, West Virginia, US company Protea has spent the past 10 years developing new technologies to identify, characterise and quantify biomolecules - the products of living cells. With over 100 products, the company provides labs across the world with bioanalytical technology, with the goal to provide life science investigators with more comprehensive and reproducible datasets, with which to guide their research. Steve Turner, CEO, believes that one particular new technology, known as Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionisation (LAESI), can help researchers obtain data on their biological samples with no preparation or destruction of their precious biological sample.

Helen Difford, Editor, speaks exclusively to Steve Turner, CEO, Protea Biosciences

Based in Morgantown, West Virginia, US company Protea has spent the past 10 years developing new technologies to identify, characterise and quantify biomolecules – the products of living cells. With over 100 products, the company provides labs across the world with bioanalytical technology, with the goal to provide life science investigators with more comprehensive and reproducible datasets, with which to guide their research. Steve Turner, CEO, believes that one particular new technology, known as Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionisation (LAESI), can help researchers obtain data on their biological samples with no preparation or destruction of their precious biological sample.

“Mass Spectrometry is now the primary method by which the products of cells are identified, from proteins to lipids, metabolites or other biomolecules,” Turner asserts. “Mass spectrometry is traditionally the domain of analytical chemistry. It is a highly specialised discipline that major biological research centres use to identify and characterise proteins and metabolites in biomarker discovery, analysis of cell lines and biofluids, toxicology and many other fields.” For Turner, it’s about as foundational a scientific discipline as one can imagine. But there are challenges for the traditional mass spectrometrist. “For example, in order to obtain mass spectrometry data today, you have to do laborious sample preparation steps, including chromatography where chemicals are added to the sample, which means you introduce bias, error, incur reproducibility issues and in an important way, you disconnect the data from the biological sample itself,” Turner explains. “Particularly for proteomics where you’re looking for proteins in tissues, cells or biofluids, there is a real disconnect for the biologist who’s looking to interpret the mass spec data in the context of the biology of their sample.”

Protea’s answer to this challenge is LAESI. The LAESI instrument analyses biological tissues and samples using a mid-range infrared laser which corresponds to the frequency of the O-H bond vibrations in water, resulting in the strong absorption of the wavelength by the water. Gas phase particles are created from the ablation of the sample due to the absorption. The particles are ionised through interactions with an electrospray ionisation plume. The ions can then be sampled and analysed by the mass spectrometer, which is coupled with LAESI instrumentation. “It enables something quite game-changing for biological research,” Turner believes. “All the traditional chromatography and solid phase extraction isn’t necessary. You’re connecting the data to the biological sample and marrying two disparate fields, mass spectrometry and biological research. It’s that integration that is creating excitement in the field.”

For Turner, the advantages are clear. “You can do real-time analysis of cell metabolism. Say you have a cell line and you’re evaluating a candidate drug on the cells. You can look at differences in the metabolic profiling of those cells over a time course – in 10 seconds, one minute, five minutes, 10 minutes and you can look across those datasets and study the alterations of the metabolism of the cells in real time.” Another benefit is LAESI’s breadth of applications. “Bioanalytics is foundational to all life science; you can’t name a field this technology wouldn’t apply to. As an example, its application in anatomic pathology will be revolutionary. We are used to antibody-based technologies – if you want to detect something, you first have to make a specific antibody; you use a variety of staining or detection methods and the antibody lights up when it finds and binds to the protein or biomolecule that interests you. LAESI promises to help enable the end of the indirect era of detection. If you want to detect a specific biomolecule, you can do so without having to go through the time and effort of making an antibody.” In addition, LAESI equipment is compatible with leading mass spectrometers available in the market today. “We’ve developed robust software that allows user friendly interaction and can be used at present with both Thermo and Waters mass spectrometers; we are also working with other manufacturers for the future. LAESI also is compatible with older models of mass spectrometers.

And how does Turner see drug discovery and development over the next few years? Like many, he is a firm believer in improving technology to obtain better and faster results. “The industry needs more comprehensive datasets, available sooner, to improve the decision-making process, so that the decision to fail, move forward or make adaptations can be made on the best possible datasets. Analytical technologies are crucial. Frankly, I think we need to move beyond antibody technologies if we’re going to look at the subtleties of protein structure and to be able to look at thousands of analytes in rapid, parallel and simultaneous analysis.. Breaking through the straightjacket of having to produce antibodies and being limited to what the antibody is specific to is going to facilitate the kind of revolution in data generation that biologists need.”

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