In fight against superbugs, old technology is new again

Spectrometry, developed in the 1940s, has been re-engineered and is back in the spotlight with new uses.
By Bernie Monegain
12:03 PM

Mass spectrometry, which once entailed breaking up samples into tiny particles and then measuring how they formed and moved, was used in the lab to identify different types of carbon. Today, the technology has been re-engineered for diagnosis of patients at risk for severe infections and to fight superbugs.

Spectrometry represents a billion-dollar market, according to a new report from research firm Kalorama Information's, Mass Spectrometry in Clinical Applications.

The technology has been enhanced with lasers, and can be used for protein analysis, using complicated histograms of the intensity of charges and mass ratios to definitively identify a substance.

"You can't fool a mass spectrometer, that would be the simple way to explain it," said Bruce Carlson, Publisher of Kalorama Information. "For superbugs that's important. The systems are specific and accurate in identifying the exact microorganism."

They are also fast, Carlson added. In many cases, it takes just a few minutes from sample to result. And accuracy and speed are critical in identifying infections such as sepsis, he noted.

Superbug and other infection detection applications build on what mass spectrometry is being used for now: therapeutic drug monitoring – including immuno-suppressants, pain management drugs and many others – metabolite testing, steroid hormone, vitamins and newborn screening, among them.

"When you hear about athletes being tested for steroids and other drugs, that is often a mass spectrometer that is being used because of the incontrovertible result," Carlson said. 

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