Targeted proteomics of low-level proteins in human plasma by LC/MSn: using human growth hormone as a model system

J Proteome Res. Sep-Oct 2002;1(5):459-65. doi: 10.1021/pr025537l.


This paper describes the profiling of human growth hormone (hGH) in human plasma in order to assess the dynamic range of the ion-trap mass spectrometer for proteomic studies of complex biological samples. Human growth hormone is an example of a low-level plasma protein in vivo, present at subfemtomole levels. This study was performed on a plasma sample in which hGH has been spiked at 10-fold above the natural level, that is approximately 16 pg/microL of plasma. Initially, the measurement was carried out without any sample enrichment and consisted of the following steps: the full set of plasma proteins were reduced, alkylated, and digested with trypsin, and the resulting peptides were separated on a capillary C-18 column and then detected by ion-trap mass spectrometry (1D LC/MS). In addition, this study provided a global view of the serum proteome with over 200 plasma proteins being preliminarily identified. In the MS/MS analysis, hGH was detected by characterization of the first tryptic peptide (T1). The initial identification was confirmed by alternative approaches, which also allowed the evaluation of different sample purification protocols. First, the plasma sample containing hGH was fractionated on a reversed-phase HPLC column and digested, and hGH could now be identified by MS/MS measurements of two tryptic peptides (T1 and T4) by the same 1D LC/MS protocol. In addition, the assignment of peptide identity was made with higher certainty (as measured by an algorithm score). The plasma sample was also fractionated by 1D and 2D gel electrophoresis, the selected bands were digested and analyzed again by the 1D LC/MS protocol. In both cases using the gel prepurifications, hGH was identified with additional peptides. Finally, the plasma sample was analyzed by 2D chromatography (ion exchange and reversed phase) on a new instrumental platform (ProteomeX), and hGH was identified by the observation of five tryptic peptides. In conclusion, these experiments were able to detect growth hormone in the low femtomole level with a dynamic range of 1 in 40 000 by several independent approaches. The amount of growth hormone, while 10-fold above normal in vivo levels, represents concentrations that may be present in disease states (such as acromegaly) and also in doping control measurements. These studies have demonstrated that shotgun sequencing approaches (LC/MS/MS) not only can profile high-abundance proteins in complex biological fluids but also have the potential to identify and quantitate low-level proteins present in such complex mixtures without extensive prepurification protocols. A key to such studies, however, is to use targeted approaches that reduce the complexity of the solute mixture that is presented to the mass spectrometer at a given time point. The various sample preparation protocols described here all improved the quality of the hGH measurement, although in this study the 2D chromatographic approach gave the greatest sequence coverage.

MeSH terms

  • Calibration
  • Chromatography, High Pressure Liquid / methods
  • Chromatography, Liquid / methods*
  • Electrophoresis, Gel, Two-Dimensional / methods
  • Electrophoresis, Polyacrylamide Gel
  • Human Growth Hormone / blood*
  • Human Growth Hormone / chemistry*
  • Humans
  • Ions
  • Mass Spectrometry / methods*
  • Proteome*
  • Time Factors
  • Trypsin / pharmacology


  • Ions
  • Proteome
  • Human Growth Hormone
  • Trypsin