Perspectives: Newsletter of the College of Arts & Sciences

Advancing Science and Improving Lives
Through Mass Spectrometry

Chemistry Professor Frank Turecek has seen major advances in the field of mass spectrometry¬†since entering the field four decades ago—quite a few as a result of his own research.¬† In September, Turecek was honored for his accomplishments, receiving a Thomson Medal Award from the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation.

Frank Turecek
Frank Turecek

“The award is given only every third year, and has only been given about half a dozen times, so there is no shortage of folks to honor,” says Paul Hopkins, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “The prior recipients are luminaries in their field. In short, this is a great honor.”

Turecek explains that mass spectrometry is a physical method for determining the mass of an atom or molecule, including very large ones like DNA, proteins, and even viruses. Using mass spectrometry, scientists are able to determine the amino acid sequence in proteins, which is key to protein identification and characterization. Turecek’s team has been developing new methods to read the entire protein sequence, which is often necessary to find modified or damaged sites that may affect function and cause disease. He also has used mass spectrometry to study the highly reactive molecules that are relevant for combustion, atmospheric chemistry, and radiation damage of DNA.

“I am a physical organic chemist by training,” says Turecek. “The challenges posed by mass spectrometry pushed me to learn more chemical physics and theory on the one hand and biology on the other. Somewhere in the middle were natural products like steroids, alkaloids, and sugars that I helped to structurally characterize. I am trying to teach this broad approach to my graduate students and expose them to many different areas that mass spectrometry can tackle.”

"Practically all information created by well-conducted
fundamental research is likely to be useful at some point, and
progress would be severely hampered without building such
an extensive body of knowledge and expertise."

Turecek’s work has translated to real-life applications. In collaboration with colleagues Michael Gelb, the Harry and Catherine Jaynne Boand Endowed Professor of Chemistry and adjunct professor of biochemistry, and C. Ronald Scott, professor of pediatrics, Turecek introduced a new approach to testing and detecting several rare metabolic diseases in newborns, enabling children who carry the genetic defect to be treated before the onset of symptoms.

Frank Turecek accepting Thomson Medal Award
Frank Turecek (left) accepts his Thomson Medal Award.

“Dr. Scott has just finished a pilot study in Washington state that screened over 100,000 newborns using our technology and the results confirmed the robustness and practicality of this approach,” says Turecek. “Mass spectrometry plays a critical role in this application because it allows us to simultaneously determine activities of up to nine enzymes in a tiny (0.1”) punch of a dried blood spot. No other method can achieve this task.”

Turecek is working on another applied project in collaboration with Daniel Chiu, who is Endowed Professor of Analytical Chemistry, the A. Bruce Montgomery Professor of Chemistry, and a professor of bioengineering. This project involves building a new instrument that uses mass spectrometry to pinpoint chemical changes in a single cell that can, or is known to, trigger cancer.

“In this project we quite effectively leverage expertise gained from previous instrumentation projects, even those that were not very successful,” says Turecek. “This is an aspect of research that is sometimes difficult to communicate to profit-oriented society—that practically all information created by well-conducted fundamental research is likely to be useful at some point, and progress would be severely hampered without building such an extensive body of knowledge and expertise.”

As for his Thomson Medal Award, Turecek says he was “both honored and humbled by joining the distinguished company of the present and past winners that includes some big names in the field.” He accepted the award at a conference in Kyoto in September.

Return to Table of Contents, October 2012 issue