Industry Collaboration Advances Important Research Technology

Friday, December 4, 2020

A recent collaboration between the University of New Hampshire and Thermo Fisher Scientific has resulted in some promising innovations that could improve the sensitivity of mass spectrometry, an analytical technique with important applications in chemistry, biology, drug discovery, clinical testing, glycomics, geology and more.

The collaboration was led by Dr. Anyin Li, an assistant professor of analytical chemistry at UNH and Dr. Linfan Li, a senior scientist at Thermo Fisher in Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry. The two met while attending the American Society of Mass Spectrometry (ASMS) conference in 2017 and connected over their shared interest in instrumentation development. Dr. Anyin Li has spent his career doing research in analytical method development, in particular in the area of mass spectrometry. Mass spectrometry is a way of looking at the composition of a material by measuring the weight of atoms and molecules. A scientist can use the instrument, called a mass spectrometer, to determine what is in a sample and how much of it is there.

Dr. Anyin Li and Dr. Linfan Li kept in touch after the conference and teamed up in 2018 on a collaborative research grant, which provides funding and support for research and development collaborations. Their proposal set out to develop an improved method of electrospray ionization (a process of getting the sample into the mass spectrometer and ionizing the molecules), to make it feasible for lower amounts of analytes to be detected. Although mass spectrometers can detect a single gas phase ion, current mass spectrometry methods require much more of the analyte (the substance being analyzed). “The problem is that only a percentage of the analytes get ionized,” says Dr. Anyin Li. “Existing ionization methods, like electrospray, are just not efficient enough to put a charge on every analyte molecule in the sample. Considering many analytes of interest are present, in water, blood or urine for example, below the nanogram or even picogram per liter range, this is a big problem and also a great opportunity.”  

The grant wrapped up in 2019 and their work led to a new electrospray ionization method that can create droplets much smaller than what is possible using conventional electrospray techniques. “The smaller the droplet is, the higher the surface-to-volume ratio is,” explains Dr. Anyin Li.

 “This greater surface area bears more charge, giving analytes a higher probability to be ionized and passed into the machine. This makes them ‘brighter’ for the mass spectrometer to ‘see,’ which makes experiments on smaller samples more feasible.” Dr. Anyin Li is hopeful that the method they’ve developed might have exciting applications outside of mass spectrometry as well. “I expect this innovation will help to charter unexplored territories in electrospray ionization and facilitate the study of the unique chemistry happening in such small droplets.”

“Industry collaboration is essential for university researchers doing cutting-edge work like this,” Dr. Anyin Li comments. “The resources, equipment, knowledge and expertise I received through the collaboration with Thermo Fisher allowed me to push my work to a completely new level. There were quite a few interesting phenomena that I wouldn’t have been able to fully understand without the company’s input on the configuration and sensitivity of the instrumentation.”

“These collaborative projects are very important to Thermo Fisher’s research and development efforts,” says Dr. Linfan Li. “We can provide the instrumentation, tools and expertise that researchers might not have access to in their labs, and in return, working with university researchers like Dr. Anyin Li opens up new avenues for innovations for our technology. It’s these boundary-pushing innovations which help us fulfill our mission to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner and safer.”

“This is just one of many examples of UNH researchers and industry working together to drive innovation and solve problems,” says Marc Eichenberger, director of corporate engagement at UNHInnovation, which manages and commercializes the university’s intellectual property. “These mutually beneficial collaborations are becoming increasingly important in the advancement of science and technology and we encourage our faculty to engage with industry as much as possible.”

If you are interested in learning more about collaborating with UNH, please contact Marc Eichenberger at