CASBR houses two mass spectrometry MALDI timsTOF fleX instruments that serve metabolomics-based research. MALDI stands for matrix assisted laser desorption/ionization, which describes the method by which a laser shoots down onto an organic tissue sample suspended in a prepared matrix. In a split second, the sample and matrix are ionized through energy transfer from the powerful laser.
It’s a technique in metabolomics that has been touted as a technology to watch in 2023 by Nature Journal for its ability to allow scientists to discern the inner workings of biology at the single-cell level as never seen before.
“You’re really looking at a melting pot of all these cells together,” Sun said. “There’s no way of separating them. But now, the MALDI instrument is essentially acting like Google Maps for the body. It suddenly gives you very detailed roads, streets, buildings that haven’t been previously available and visible to investigators.”
The center also carries other instruments that contribute to spatial metabolism research, such as a PhenoImager HT and a hydrogen deuterium exchange with mass spectrometry machine. Taken as a whole, these tools are run by CASBR on behalf of UF and non-UF researchers looking to analyze tissue or protein samples from their own ongoing studies.
CASBR services are present throughout the university: the center has collaborated with the Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight Brain Institute, the Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease, the Breathing Research and Therapeutics Center and the UF Health Cancer Center. They’ve also gone outside Gainesville city limits: samples have been sent in from researchers at other R1 institutions, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford University and Johns Hopkins University.
The real-world impact has been just as far-reaching. For example, a current study from the Sun Lab made use of CASBR to determine how high-carb and high-fat diets, often seen in fast food meals, correlate with an accelerated tumor incidence in lung cancer among lower-income Americans who smoke — even when compared with higher-income counterparts.
“This work can be immediately actionable,” Sun said. “It is policy-shifting because you can use it to advocate for more fresh produce availability for these people who live in disadvantaged rural areas.”
Other uses have targeted diseases related to the brain. Charles Michael Soto, a CASBR lab technician and Sun Lab member, is helping to manage the CASBR instruments for the analyses of neurodegenerative conditions such as Lafora disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The ability to look at brain tissue on a spatial level isn’t something I’ve experienced or seen before outside this lab,” Soto said. “Between all the different equipment you see, the different people you meet and the different technology you’re exposed to and are repairing, it’s all just a ton of good experience.”
Sun is also pushing CASBR further into the future by incorporating the HiPerGator supercomputer into his lab’s work. Using computer vision, a form of AI that allows machines to interpret visual information, the Sun Lab and Li Chen, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of biostatistics in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and the College of Medicine, are building a visual atlas of metabolites to be used as a guide for investigators worldwide.
For now, though, researchers can turn to CASBR for their tissue sample needs and to answer ambitious biological questions.
“We’re operating on the basis of good science,” Sun said. “If the science is interesting and novel, we’re always happy to help give researchers another dimension of what they can see because of our technologies.”