Innovation and Partnerships Office

Mass Spec Testing of Microparticle Lipids for Cancer Diagnosis and Sub-typing IB-3306


  • Cancer diagnosis / prognosis
  • Tumor analysis
  • Identification of invasive sub-types
  • Cancer remission monitoring
  • Disease diagnostics


  • Analyzes microparticle lipids from blood, serum, or tissues
  • Discriminates high growth from low growth cancers
  • Low- to non-invasive diagnostic screening test
  • Rapid – amenable to high throughput diagnostics
  • Analyzes microparticles <2 µm
  • Uses precision NIMS mass spectrometry


Berkeley Lab researchers led by Katherine Louie, Ben Bowen, and Trent Northen have developed a new technology for medical diagnostics based on rapid mass spectrometry testing of lipid microparticles found in blood, serum, and other bodily fluids. The technique exploits the power of mass spectrometry to profile the unique molecular signatures of microparticles that are ubiquitous in such fluids. Their research indicates that the same significant molecular signatures obtained by mass spec analysis of compounds in cancerous cell lines may be detected in serum-derived microparticles. Consequently, the technique might be used to diagnose some cancers from a sample of blood rather than a more invasive biopsy of suspect tissue. The technology may also be adapted to distinguish rapidly growing cancerous tissues from those that are not aggressive.

Although different mass spectrometry techniques may be used for these analyses, the Berkeley Lab team has focused on the use of its Nanostructure-initiator Mass Spectrometry (NIMS) technology, which can rapidly profile particles smaller than 2 µm. For example, a NIMS profile of lipids derived from serum detected the m/z 760 ion, which is found abundantly in cancer cell lines and tumors. Lipid analysis can also be used to determine subtypes of cancer cells. In addition, when combined with deuterium tracers, the NIMS screening was able to determine the rate of lipid metabolism in microparticles potentially derived from cancerous cells, and so distinguish between fast-growing cells likely to be invasive or slower metabolizing cells that pose less of a threat.

Currently, cancer diagnostics, tissue typing, and prognostics require invasive procedures. The Berkeley Lab technology, which uses precision analysis of serum microparticles as proxies for cancerous tissues, opens the door to the use of readily available samples of blood or other bodily fluids to make medical diagnoses. Information gleaned through this technique from whole blood, serum, or microparticles from other bodily fluids may be sufficient to determine cancer sub-type and risk of metastases. The approach may be used to detect cancers at an early stage, to analyze tumors, and to monitor patients at risk of remission.

DEVELOPMENT STAGE:  Proven principle

STATUS:  Published U. S. Patent Application #14/761,587.  Available for licensing or collaborative research.


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