Lasers shed light on mechanisms behind cancer, deadly bacteria

Cason Hunwick

A new laser tool will help advance our understanding of the mechanisms behind cancer and aid researchers in finding drugs to kill dangerous, drug-resistant bacteria.

A group of UT chemists have combined high energy lasers and a common analytical technique to create a tool that can reveal tiny details in the structures of biological molecules.

UT chemistry professor Jennifer Brodbelt leads the Brodbelt Research Group, and said their innovation increases the accuracy of identifying biological threats.

“In the academic world, you need to have something innovative, something different,” Brodbelt said. “My group decided to take lasers, another powerful tool and interface them with mass spectrometers.”

Mass spectrometry is a conventional technology that can reveal what types of molecules are in a sample, Brodbelt said.

“Mass spectrometry is a super sensitive measurement tool,” Brodbelt said. “It weighs molecules. It gives you a fingerprint of what molecules are in a sample.”

The Eberlin Research Group, headed by chemistry assistant professor Livia Eberlin, uses mass spectrometry to detect cancer cells. The lab’s cancer-detecting pen recently won a MacArthur “genius” award of $625,000. While the Eberlin lab focuses on the diagnosis of cancer, the Brodbelt group pinpoints small mutations or modifications of proteins that relate to the mechanism of cancer, Brodbelt said.

The new approach developed by the Brodbelt lab reveals mechanisms in cancers that the Eberlin lab’s pen cannot find, Brodbelt said.

“The laser-based method gives you a level of detail you cannot achieve with the mass spectrometer alone,” Brodbelt said.

This high level of detail allows researchers such as graduate chemistry student Rachel (Megan) Mehaffey to find mutations in proteins, which serve as a warning that something is wrong with molecule.

The lasers have potential applications for patients with cancer because knowing the slight differences in these molecules can advance cancer-fighting drugs, Mehaffey said.

“Drug makers need this level of accuracy,” Mehaffey said. “They need to know that a certain part of the protein needs to change.”

Using these lasers is like planting a tiny spy in the enemy base. The lasers identify details in the cancer that better equip drug researchers to take it down in different ways.

Molly Blevins, another graduate chemistry student in the Brodbelt lab, uses lasers for other applications, such as identifying dangerous, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“We’re in an era of emerging antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and this is a global and national health concern,” Blevins said. “If we can’t treat these bacteria, they could literally wipe everyone out.”

That understanding of biological function can help doctors and researchers create new drugs that better attack and kill these bacteria, Blevins said.

Bacteria and cancer cells represent just a few things this tool could help identify, Mehaffey said.

“We have this really useful tool, and we’re trying to figure out which problems we can attack with it,” Mehaffey said. “Hopefully in the near-future, there will be groups that apply it to specific problems and are able to completely solve them.”