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Ulster University’s Mass Spectrometry Centre is pioneering mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) on the island of Ireland, spearheading the use of this innovative technology to uncover new treatments for common degenerative diseases.

Led by Dr Diego Cobice, the centre is part of an international collaborative network, with Ulster researchers working closely MSI centres worldwide.

Mass spectrometry imaging is an innovative technology which allows visualisation of the spatial distribution of molecules e.g. pharmaceutical compounds, biomarkers and metabolites in biological tissue sections. MSI has a broad scope of applications and is being successfully applied in biology, pathology, medicine, and pharmacology amongst others.

MSI can help us to understand the link between the localisation of certain molecules and their function during pathogenesis, disease progression, or treatment. It can accelerate our efforts in providing more effective therapeutics for a broad range of diseases, such as cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, or age-related conditions.

The research team at Ulster is currently using MSI to unravel potential biological mechanisms that can lead to new therapeutic targets for degenerative diseases including prostate cancer.

Dr Cobice has been contributing to the field of mass spectrometry for the past 20 years in both academic and multinational pharmaceutical industries with a particular focus on endocrine-related diseases and drug discovery and development in R&D. He commented:

“Degenerative diseases are prevalent and devastating. While extensive research has been done, we are still far from understanding what causes degeneration and how we can prevent or reverse it. Systems biology approaches have led to a holistic examination of the “interactome” such the proteome and metabolome to shed new light on degenerative pathogenesis. Mass spectrometry imaging is a fascinating emerging technology that is currently helping researchers to have deeper and better understanding of disease mechanisms at the molecular level.

“I am delighted to lead this research on the island of Ireland, working alongside prestigious MSI centres in the UK and Europe. It is envisaged that with this expertise, Ulster University would become the Irish training hub for undergraduate, MSc and PhD researchers, attracting collaborations with other well-established molecular imaging centres worldwide. 

“My team is currently using MSI-based approaches to map the molecular fingerprint of several degenerative diseases including castrate resistant prostate cancer. We hope to uncover new biological mechanisms that can lead to the discovery of novel biomarkers for disease progression and stratification along with new therapeutic targets.”

PhD Researcher Karl Smith joined the research group in 2015 and has been working alongside Dr Cobice to assess the effect of vitamin D on the intracrinology of castrate resistant prostate cancer with mass spectrometry imaging. Karl aims to graduate from Ulster University next summer and thanks to his research and experience has been offered a post-doctoral position at one of the most prestigious mass spectrometry labs, the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab) in Tallahassee, US.

Karl commented:

“My research involves mass spectrometry imaging of advanced stages of prostate cancer, following vitamin D treatment and the resulting effects that can be observed, both at metabolic and genetic levels.

“Through the expertise and guidance from Dr Cobice, I have generated unique data with mass spectrometry imaging, previously unseen on the island of Ireland. It has the potential to broaden the scope of research that is achievable at Ulster University and allow us to build capacity with future collaborations worldwide.

“I am very grateful to have secured a post-doctoral research position at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab), at Florida State University. I will be aiming to apply the skills and insight I have gained to help set up a mass spectrometry imaging platform, working with a fantastic team and one of the most powerful mass spectrometers in the world.”