“At ChemCentre we are very good at analysing small chemicals – those in the order of 500-600 atomic mass units (AMU), but we have less capability with larger molecules,” Colin said. “This new position will work with peptides, which are in the order of 5000 AMU and can be up to 25,000 AMU, and will fulfil a number of projects in Forensic Science. Broadly speaking, these will include analysing peptides in soil, investigating peptide toxins, and screening for peptides in drug testing.
“We are working with ECU to expand our capability – ChemCentre’s and Western Australia’s – in proteomics and metabolomics, where there is currently a knowledge gap.”
Proteomics is the study of proteins; metabolomics is the study of the chemicals left behind in living tissues after metabolism.
“Most proteomic work focuses on health and medicine, and looks at naturally occurring metabolites in the body,” Colin said. “We want to look at biomarkers from a forensic perspective, so we can understand how we can identify them and how they are significant in a person’s death.
“For example, one simple application could be in understanding the role of insulin, which is a peptide, in the death of a diabetic person – was there enough insulin in their system or was there too much?
“Some peptides, such as human growth hormone, have legitimate uses, illegitimate uses and illegal uses, as we have all witnessed in various high profile cases of drugs in sport. By gaining a better understanding of how these chemicals are metabolised in the body, we could develop a range of tests to analyse for their presence.”
To facilitate the research, ChemCentre has secured a brand new instrument – a Q-exactiv plus – from manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific.
“The instrument has been provided to us as a demo unit for eight to twelve months while we develop our test range,” Colin said.
“The whole project is collaborative in nature. It’s an integrated approach to cracking a few nuts that have been problematic. It’s exciting stuff.”
The post-doctoral researcher will initially be appointed for two years, with the understanding that, by building ChemCentre’s capacity in this area, there will be an ongoing role at the laboratory.