Top-Tier Research

January 4, 2012

 Akos Vertes presenting slide about LAESI molecular imaging

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

New technology developed by GW Professor of Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Akos Vertes was recently included on The Scientist’s list of Top Ten Innovations of 2011. The technology, called Laser Ablation Electrospray Ionization (LAESI), allows researchers to more quickly and effectively learn the chemical composition of a biological sample.

The Scientist: Magazine of Life Sciences is a British professional publication that covers research papers, the state of research in the life sciences field and technological updates. Since 2008, the publication has compiled a top 10 list of technological innovations of the past year. The 2011 innovations were chosen from a list of 65 nominations. 

LAESI technology is important because it helps meet the needs of researchers in the biomedical arena, Dr. Vertes said. “When you need to know the compositions of cells, biological fluids and other samples, there is no single perfect way to get that information,” he said. But LAESI makes the analysis of cell composition quicker and more direct.

Rather than having to specially prepare samples, researchers simply insert a piece of tissue or other material into the LAESI unit. Inside, the sample is exposed to laser radiation, creating a tiny explosion. The material that flies out of this explosion intersects with an electrospray—a plume of charged particles—which produces droplets that can then be analyzed for their component parts with a mass spectrometer, a machine common in research facilities.

“Because this method is extremely sensitive and selective, you can look at individual cells,” Dr. Vertes explained. And because the LAESI method requires only very small amounts of material, more of any given sample is left over for other types of analysis.

Peter Nemes, currently a staff fellow at the FDA, was a Ph.D. student at GW and worked with Dr. Vertes to develop the new technology over the course of four years, with funding from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the W. M. Keck Foundation. Working with GW’s Office of Technology Transfer, they obtained about half a dozen patents on the LAESI technique and its analysis software.

After publishing their research in academic journals, Dr. Vertes and Dr. Nemes assigned their patents to GW, and the university licensed the work to Protea Biosciences Inc., a Morgantown, W.Va.-based company. Protea developed it into a commercial product: a unit called the LAESI DP-1000 that can be purchased by labs, hospitals and other facilities to work with their existing mass spectrometers.

There are many different applications for the new technology. In pharmaceutical research, for example, the technique can show whether a drug has actually reached the cells that were targeted. Dr. Vertes’ team is working with researchers at George Mason University on biodefense applications—including analyzing samples to determine if they contain potential dangerous material. And at GW, Dr. Vertes and his colleagues are working with Professor of Biochemistry Valerie Hu to study samples from autistic patients to help understand any biological differences in their cells.

In addition to Dr. Nemes, a number of current and past graduate students worked on the LAESI project, Dr. Vertes said. “They are an important part of this story, and I owe them gratitude for their contributions,” he said. “The response to this technology from the scientific community has been very exciting. We published over a dozen papers, and all the reviews came back positive.”

Dr. Vertes learned that LAESI had been selected for the top 10 list from a friend at Protea earlier this week. “I was very, very happy, and of course I immediately sent out e-mails to everyone in the lab so that they could be happy as well,” he said.

GW Vice President for Research Leo Chalupa said he was proud to see a GW researcher honored.

“This is apt recognition of the stellar research that Dr. Vertes has been doing, and I expect that it will bring great benefits to the field of biomedical research,” he said.