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A powerful instrument is giving Halifax researchers new insights into the machinery of human cells, leading to better diagnostic tests for medical conditions.

For high throughput  automation, a SampleJet stores 5x96-well sample tube racks and 30 independent  sample tubes at 4 degrees C.

For high throughput automation, a SampleJet stores 5x96-well sample tube racks and 30 independent sample tubes at 4 degrees C. A robot handles each individual sample, allowing for complete automation including pre-heating of samples. The display in the upper right hand corner indicates that sample 13 is currently in the magnet.

NRC researchers are using new, state-of-the-art spectroscopy equipment to develop diagnostic methods for thyroid cancer, urinary tract obstruction and other medical conditions.

Housed at the NRC Institute for Marine Biosciences (NRC-IMB) in Halifax, the $2.9 million instrument is the world's most sensitive magnetic resonance spectrometer for small samples, says Dr. John Walter of NRC-IMB. The instrument will allow universities, health care providers and life science companies throughout Nova Scotia to investigate how drugs and other molecules interact with human cells, thereby accelerating the development of new diagnostic tests and treatments for diseases.

Magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy is a low-energy, non-invasive tool for studying biomolecules, the machinery of human cells. ?It gives you information about molecular structures that you can't get in other ways,? says Dr. Walter. ?Our instrument is the most powerful high-resolution MR spectrometer in the Atlantic provinces. It's about 50 times more sensitive than the previous instrument. It's also highly automated with the capacity to handle 480 samples.?

The spectrometer was procured with support from Dalhousie University and 36 local life-science companies and researchers, for NRC-IMB's Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance Facility. The equipment completes a suite of MR technologies that can provide detailed molecular level information, pre-clinical imaging or human diagnostics. ?Our new instrument opens the door to study many compounds or biomolecular systems that could not have been looked at with instruments used previously,? explains Dr. Walter.

Samples are positioned into blue holders using a clear depth gauge to ensure each sample is in the centre of the receiver coil.

Samples are positioned into blue holders using a clear depth gauge to ensure each sample is in the centre of the receiver coil.

In one application, NRC is using MR spectroscopy to look for differences between malignant and benign thyroid nodules. ?Surgery is currently performed on all patients with thyroid nodules, even though 80 percent of the surgeries are not necessary,? says Dr. Ray Syvitski of NRC-IMB. ?We're searching for biochemical markers that identify which thyroids do not require surgery and which ones do.?

With the help of the MR instrument, NRC is also studying partial obstruction of the urinary tract in the pediatric population, in collaboration with the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. This condition, which affects roughly 1-2 percent of children, blocks the flow of urine from the kidney to the bladder. The goal of this research is to identify markers associated with obstructions. ?Our collaborators would ultimately like to develop a non-invasive test that indicates whether an obstruction will resolve by itself or whether surgical intervention will be required,? says Dr. Walter.

Dr. Nadine Merkley  (left) positions a sample tube using the depth gauge, while Dr. Tobias Karakach  (centre) discusses sample requirements with Dr. Ray Syvitski.

Dr. Nadine Merkley (left) positions a sample tube using the depth gauge, while Dr. Tobias Karakach (centre) discusses sample requirements with Dr. Ray Syvitski.

In addition, researchers at Dalhousie University affiliated with the U.S.-based firm Neuro-Hitech Inc. are interested in harnessing the NRC instrument to guide the development of new drugs for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and epilepsy. First, they are using computer modelling to identify candidate compounds that have the potential to bind to known receptors in the brain. After synthesizing various drug candidates, ?they propose to use our MR spectroscopy equipment to test whether the real compounds actually bind to the receptors,? says Dr. Walter. The NRC spectrometer will also determine what part of a compound binds to the receptors, so the company can validate whether its computer modelling works.

Nova Scotia, particularly Halifax, is developing a growing reputation for excellence in the life sciences. The province is home to about 55 core companies that focus on R&D and technology, and invest more than $110 million annually.

NRC-IMB welcomes the use of the Biomolecular Magnetic Resonance Facility by health care researchers, companies and universities throughout the Atlantic Region. The institute offers hands-on usage and data acquisition by one of its highly qualified researchers. For more information, please contact Dr. Ray Syvitski: Ray.Syvitksi@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca. End