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A mass spectrometer is one of the most powerful and widely used analysis instruments in science. Charles N. McEwen, PhD, is making the mass spectrometer better. “It’s already a powerful tool,” said Dr. McEwen, the Houghton Endowed Chairholder in Chemistry and Biochemistry. “We’re developing a technology to improve it.”

“We can break down molecules and look at the pieces to determine the structure—like solving a puzzle,” he said of compounds studied using a mass spectrometer. “The idea is to identify small molecules, drugs, carbohydrates, peptides, and proteins directly from their native environments.”

Two of the most effective means of analysis, electrospray ionization (ESI) and matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI)—techniques that earned their inventors a share of the Nobel Prize—have their limitations.

Dr. McEwen, who came to University of the Sciences after a 35-year career with DuPont, has created new ionization techniques to circumvent these issues. While at DuPont, he developed ionization techniques to analyze the small molecules that don’t work well with ESI or MALDI. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons used in solar cells are an example of compounds that can be analyzed in seconds using the new method. Dr. McEwen called this method ASAP, and it is now widely used around the world and at USciences.

At USciences, Dr. McEwen’s group collaborated with scientists at Wayne State University and discovered simple-to-implement ionization methods that combine the attributes of ESI and MALDI for analysis of large and small molecules.

“These methods are revolutionary, and we want to make the technique better—easier, faster, and with more sensitivity,” said Dr. McEwen. “We can apply it to just about any biological system and some nonbiological systems too. One goal is to apply these methods directly to tissue analyses in a clinic to guide instant diagnosis of diseases.”