New machine to analyze chemistry of cancer

July 11, 2013

What causes cancer to progress to metastatic disease? That is the question scientists strive every day to answer in the Cancer Biology Program at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. What they discover may one day help save lives.

The program’s scientists soon will have a powerful ally in their quest: new state-of-the-art equipment for investigating the chemistry of cancer.

The Thermo Scientific Orbitrap Elite mass spectrometer, which is undergoing final testing at Cedars-Sinai before being made available to investigators, identifies the chemical makeup of proteins and metabolites (metabolic products) by separating gaseous ions according to their mass to charge ratios. The machine, made by Thermo Scientific Inc. of Bremen, Germany, is valued at more than $1 million. It can analyze biomolecules with extremely high accuracy – down to a tiny fraction of a hydrogen atom. Just as important, it performs this analysis in a way that produces large amounts of data.

"Usually we study one or two proteins at a time using very imperfect free agents such as antibodies," explained Michael Freeman, PhD, director of the Cancer Biology Program and a professor in the Departments of Surgery and Biomedical Sciences. "This technology allows you to study thousands of proteins at a time. It’s as if you’re stepping up from a solar system to a cluster of stars or a galaxy."

Through mass spectrometry, scientists can assemble a more complete picture of how proteins, the workhorses of cells, are structured and how they interact, a specialty known as proteomics.

Applying these findings to cancer, researchers can examine multiple signal transductions – biochemical pathways that convey information across cells and tissue compartments – as malignancies grow and spread. Or they can investigate growth factors that cause major changes in collagen and other aspects of the tumor environment.

"We want to understand everyone’s specific type of cancer, to molecularly dissect it, so that we will understand what kind of cancer they have and how to treat it with drugs," Freeman said. "We want to personalize treatment. Personalized medicine is the future of cancer treatment."

The Thermo Scientific Orbitrap Elite is the technologic heart of the new Biomarker Discovery Platform directed by Wei Yang, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery. While the equipment will be an important tool for the Cancer Biology Program, the platform is available to any Cedars-Sinai scientist who wishes to study proteins, metabolites and or the molecular mechanisms of diseases.

Currently, the Cancer Biology Program focuses mainly on prostate cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer. But it also includes studies on other endocrine cancers, and an emerging group of researchers works with pancreatic cancer.

Besides Freeman and Yang, the program’s core faculty includes Dolores Di Vizio, MD, PhD, and Jayoung Kim, PhD, of the departments of Surgery and Biomedical Sciences. All four of them relocated as a team to Cedars-Sinai last year from Harvard Medical School and its Boston Children’s Hospital.

More broadly, the Cancer Biology Program can be viewed as embracing scores of faculty at Cedars-Sinai, drawing from the allied Cancer Biology Division in the Department of Surgery and the Research Division of Cancer Biology and Therapeutics in the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

"We try to get the laboratories to work together across disciplines at Cedars-Sinai," Freeman said. "Our model is not hierarchal."

For more information on the Cancer Biology Program and the Biomarker Discovery Platform, please contact Freeman,, or Yang,

Photos, from top: Michael Freeman, PhD, (left) director of the Cancer Biology Program at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, and Wei Yang, PhD, director of the Biomarker Discovery Platform with the new Thermo Scientific Orbitrap Elite mass spectrometer; a close-up view of the machine.

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