NASA Spinoff

Back in the United States, Ionwerks incorporated many of the innovations developed during the SBIR with Kennedy into its commercial laser imaging spectrometer for surface analysis. Today, Ionwerks sells the complete spectrometer to industrial, government, and academic laboratories for biological mass spectrometry and basic biological research. One of the instrument’s unique features is its precision, which allows users to see subtle differences in the masses and shapes of compounds desorbed (released) from a surface.

For one application, Ionwerks’ spectrometer has been incorporated into ongoing contractual and SBIR work with the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Most of the hardware and electronics we developed for NASA found dual use in work with NIDA,” says Schultz. “After engineering the technology with NASA, it was easier to evolve a unique instrument for the NIDA applications.”

Research led by Amina Woods at NIDA’s Intramural Research program is aimed at imaging biological tissues to search for biomarker molecules as indicators of addiction or brain injury. Ionwerks’ molecular imager combines mass spectrometry with an ionization method called matrix assisted laser desorption ionization (MALDI) and a gas phase separations technique called ion mobility spectrometry to locate and identify large biomolecules on the surface of biological samples.

“If you move the laser focus from one spot to the next spot and measure the number and type of ions originating from each spot, you can create an image—a molecular map—of what molecules are where on the surface of the tissue. If researchers can find biomarkers that are collocated with diseased areas, then perhaps it will be possible to chemically mitigate neurological disease or injuries,” says Schultz. Ultimately, NIDA is attempting to correlate the presence of certain molecules with cases of addiction. Schultz notes, “If the tool can be used for one set of neurological problems, it can be used for others.”

In 2006, the company was recognized for its work with NIDA with the prestigious “Tibbetts Award” for small businesses and SBIR support organizations exemplifying the types of business, economic, and technical development goals of the SBIR program.

Without the SBIRs and use of retained earnings from Ionwerks’ commercial sales, Schultz says the work to create the product would not have been possible. But aside from the success of the instrument, Schultz hopes for the success of something even bigger. “Our company hopes to help the research community, all the people doing molecular imaging, to develop technologies that will use ever-improving instrumentation to achieve more specific molecular information, even within single cells,” he says. “Everyone in this field shares the dream that molecular imaging technology will ultimately be used clinically for early onset detection of diseases in time to do something about them.”

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