Clinical Mass Spectrometry in the Bioinformatics Era: A Hitchhiker's Guide

Comput Struct Biotechnol J. 2018 Aug 28;16:316-334. doi: 10.1016/j.csbj.2018.08.003. eCollection 2018.


Mass spectrometry (MS) is a sensitive, specific and versatile analytical technique in the clinical laboratory that has recently undergone rapid development. From initial use in metabolic profiling, it has matured into applications including clinical toxicology assays, target hormone and metabolite quantitation, and more recently, rapid microbial identification and antimicrobial resistance detection by matrix assisted laser desorption ionization-time of flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS). In this mini-review, we first succinctly outline the basics of clinical mass spectrometry. Examples of hard ionization (electron ionization) and soft ionization (electrospray ionization, MALDI) are presented to demonstrate their clinical applications. Next, a conceptual discourse on mass selection and determination is presented: quadrupole mass filter, time-of-flight mass spectrometer and the Orbitrap; and MS/MS (tandem-in-space, tandem-in-time and data acquisition), illustrated with clinical examples. Current applications in (1) bacterial and fungal identification, antimicrobial susceptibility testing and phylogenetic classification, (2) general unknown urine toxicology screening and expanded new-born metabolic screening and (3) clinical metabolic profiling by gas chromatography are outlined. Finally, major limitations of MS-based techniques, including the technical challenges of matrix effect and isobaric interference; and novel challenges in the post-genomic era, such as protein molecular variants, are critically discussed from the perspective of service laboratories. Computer technology and structural biology have played important roles in the maturation of this field. MS-based techniques have the potential to replace current analytical techniques, and existing expertise and instrument will undergo rapid evolution. Significant automation and adaptation to regulatory requirements are underway. Mass spectrometry is unleashing its potentials in clinical laboratories.

Publication types

  • Review