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Indy company rides biotech breakthrough


Indianapolis Star

Indy company rides biotech breakthrough

By Chuck Bowen

January 9, 2007

A key method of scientific research -- spreading a tissue sample across a slide, staining it and then studying it with a microscope -- was developed in the 19th century.

In many cases, that has given way to modern techniques such as mass spectrometry, a method of separating a sample's molecules by weight to better determine its composition.

But imagine if there was an even quicker way.

A team of researchers from Purdue University has developed a method of scanning samples for bacteria such as E. coli, or evidence such as explosives residue, and an Indianapolis biotech company is ramping up its production of machines using the technique.

The company, called Prosolia, makes the Omni Spray Ion Source. Essentially, it allows scientists to quickly scan a sample -- a pill suspected of being counterfeit, say, or a scrap of cloth taken as evidence -- to find out its chemical composition.

The technique allows scientists to test samples a hundred times faster than current methods and has applications in food safety, homeland security and pharmaceutical sectors.

Graham Cooks, a Purdue chemist, developed the technique in 2004.

In an interview, Cooks said trying to find out what is in a sample -- that pill or a piece of fabric -- can take hours of preparation by a lot of people doing what he calls "the heavy lifting" of science.

Enter the stereotypical big lab of people in goggles, gloves and white coats grinding up pills, shredding fabric and pulverizing food, dissolving them in solutions and heating them in beakers. This preparation can take hours before the samples are ready to be tested.

"There are lots and lots of people all over Indianapolis who are doing just this," Cooks said.

With the technique he developed at Purdue -- Desorption Electrospray Ionization, or DESI for short -- scientists don't have to do all that grinding, dissolving or heating ahead of time.

Instead, DESI uses an intact sample, Cooks said. Using this method, a scientist takes a pill and sprays it with ionized water. The drops of water strike the pill's surface and draw out chemicals. The droplets -- now full of the same chemicals that are inside the pill -- are pulled through a vacuum, dried and then analyzed.

The analysis is done by mass spectrometry -- which examines the concentration of the molecules in the sample to learn its composition.

Taking away all that heavy lifting allows researchers to run the same tests in a matter of seconds, instead of minutes.

Kevin Boscacci, president of Prosolia, said the company already has three models of its ion sources and is working on two more. Ultimately, Boscacci is seeking eight or nine models that would be compatible with all the different mass spectrometers on the market and in labs.

One of the future benefits of DESI, Boscacci said, will be its portability. Instead of requiring scientists to carry a vial of pond water to the mass spectrometer in a lab, DESI will allow for smaller mass spectrometers scientists can use in the field.

"This is the first step to a large adoption of the technique," he said. "Our customers tend to be early adopters. The (current) technology