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‘Mass Spectrometry helps in better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s’

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Dr David Smith, course leader for MSc Biotechnology and senior lecturer in biochemistry, Sheffield Hallam University, UK talks about importance of mass spectrometry in the biotechnological research, in discussion with Sachin Jagdale

How the use of Mass Spectrometry Imaging (MSI) could reduce the need for animal testing in pre-clinical research projects?

20160315ep32Mass Spectrometry Imaging (MSI) allows thousands of molecules to be located within a sample or tissue. Using this technique, researchers no longer need to have knowledge of the important and relevant molecules before they conduct an experiment, making the experiment target free.

As a range of molecules are detected at once, one sample can provide a large amount of information that previously would have needed multiple samples. This, in itself, reduces the number of animals needed to conduct pre-clinical trials.

With MSI, if a new molecule becomes relevant later then the researcher can interrogate the original dataset without needing to repeat the experiment and, therefore, the testing. MSI can be used to observe the change in proteins across a tumour or the distribution of a drug in a tissue. When coupled with tissue engineering and 3D cell culture methods, model systems can be made that closely mimic the animal models, such as living skin equivalents and cancer spheroids. These models allow the toxicity and effectiveness of drugs to be tested, in this case, without the need for animals to be used in any part of the testing process.

Kindly shed more light on Mass Spectrometry’s (MS) role in better understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

One of the central theories about the development and progression of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease is that specific proteins and peptides come together in the brain to form a structure called amyloid. This is part of the so-called ‘amyloid cascade’ hypothesis. During the assembly of amyloid material, very small toxic structures are formed from these proteins and peptides called oligomers. These oligomers, which are known to be able to kill brain cells, can be observed in cell culture, animal models and human samples. Mass spectrometry is ideally suited to observe these oligomers assembled in the test tube and ask questions such as what brings these structures together in the first place. Using this method, we can work out how big the oligomers are, what shape they form and crucially how we can prevent them from assembling — leading to Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease — by the use of drugs.

What is your observation regarding MSc biotechnology curriculum which is being taught in Indian colleges?

I have limited experience of the MSc Biotechnology curriculum in Indian colleges. However, the teaching staff I have met, have first-hand knowledge of biotechnology and its application in research and industry.

Use of MS is always an expensive affair for any Indian teaching institute. How to overcome this problem?

It is true that MS is expensive and technical. One solution might be for institutes to work together to set up regional centres where access to instruments and materials could be located. Such centres could all contribute to the purchase and running of the technology and allow access to researchers and students in a collaborative manner. Alternatively, students or staff can develop partnerships and agreements with organisations or institutions which do have access to these facilities.

India has no dearth of talented mathematicians, engineers and biotechnologists. But many of them prefer career abroad. What steps need to be taken to retain this talent?

Talented science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates will always go where they can find the most challenging and rewarding careers. The most passionate STEM graduates are often drawn by the opportunity to be innovative in their fields so countries which are developing and creating exciting opportunities in STEM industries should have no problem retaining the most talented graduates. Biotechnology is a major, growing industry and research area in India. According to the ‘Make In India’ campaign, the Indian biotech industry will grow at an average growth rate of around 30 per cent a year and reach $100 billion by 2025.

According to you, what are the improvement areas for the Indian biotechnology institutes?

In my experience, staff are well-trained and well-respected and already produce high quality research. It is important that students and staff are able to access the latest technology that enables world-class research and innovation. Those students who can graduate from an institution where they have been able to access industry-standard facilities will leave fully-prepared to begin their careers, without the need for further training.

Tell us about the development of innovative teaching methods in STEM. How to facilitate knowledge exchange between Indian and overseas biotechnology institutes?

International knowledge exchange occurs through conferences and social media. Many academics have an open and collaborative approach to knowledge exchange. Blogs are used to share teaching practices and ideas. Twitter chats such as #lthechat and #educhat are used to allow academics from all over the world to discuss teaching practices and issues in real time on a global stage.

Good use of technology encourages interaction and enthusiasm and when students are engaged then they want to participate and learn. The use of technology-enhanced learning is becoming more common at present. Students are using their smart phones in the classroom to interact with the tutors. This allows a deeper understanding to be gained and a strong rapport to build between student and tutor. Videos and other digital materials are being used effectively in a ‘flipped classroom’ — a teaching technique in which video or online content is viewed by students at home, while class time is dedicated to active learning exercises and problem-based learning. Studies have shown that the use of different kinds of technology in the classroom have a positive impact on learning and attainment.

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