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BYU Professor Engaged in Groundbreaking Research

Photo by Josh Siebert

David Dearden thinks about weight and getting in shape more than most physical trainers—for molecules, that is.

As a BYU professor and analytical chemist, Dearden has made significant progress on developing a new scientific technique that has the potential to revolutionize how molecules are identified.

For more than 30 years, Dearden has been working with mass spectrometry—a scientific method to weigh molecules.

“If you can weigh a molecule, you can tell what atoms are in it . . . [and] how the atoms are connected to each other,” Dearden said. “But mass spectrometry doesn’t usually tell you anything about how the molecules are folded up.”

If a molecule or protein in the body is shaped incorrectly, it can cause severe health issues and even diseases such as Alzheimer’s. If mass spectrometers could be used to determine a molecule’s shape, scientists would be able to better construct correctly formed molecules and understand deformed ones.

The current way to measure a molecule’s shape and fold is called drift ion mobility. While it is an effective method, it requires specialized equipment and dangerously high voltages to work. Dearden’s technique utilizing a mass spectrometer would save money and revolutionize the study of molecular recognition.

“This instrument is really good at measuring mass . . . so if we can add to it this capability of measuring shape as well, then we’ve got an extremely powerful combination,” Dearden said. “We think, in the long run, we’re going to have an extremely powerful new technique.”

Dearden’s article, “Effects of kinetic energy and collision gas on measurement of cross sections by Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry” was published in The International Journal of Mass Spectrometry in February 2015.

While Dearden’s technique hasn’t reported identical results to drift ion mobility, it has correctly determined the shape of the molecules. Dearden believes this difference is normal because the experiment’s environment is different from that of drift ion mobility.

“For more than 15 years, we’ve been working on the idea that you ought to be able to make these measurements in an FTICR mass spectrometer,” Dearden said. “About five or so years ago we figured out how to do it. Ever since then we’ve been working on refining the technique and trying to get people to accept it.”

Although his technique is groundbreaking, Dearden has encountered his fair share of skeptics.

“I had a lot of people, including some of the experts in the field of Fourier transform mass spectrometry, say this would never work, but it does work,” Dearden said. “We’re still having challenges. It’s hard to get a new technique like this accepted.”

However, Dearden gladly accepts the questions and criticism.

“Actually, it’s been a really good thing. It’s the way science is supposed to work,”
Dearden said. “I love it when they come after us that way because it makes us do the science better.”

Dearden looks forward to publishing more articles on his research and presenting it to his academic peers.

“A lot of research that most people do, and that I do, is [about] incremental changes, but this is radically different,” Dearden said.