Advancing Mass Spectrometry: The UK’s C-MASS Network

In March, the UK government announced a major investment in the country’s mass spectrometry (MS) capabilities. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will provide £49.35 million ($62.4 million) in funding over five years for Critical Mass UK (C-MASS), a network of MS labs supporting large-scale screening, protocol development, data tools and cataloging, among other priorities. UKRI is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). The funding is part of UKRI’s £481 million ($608 million) 2022–2025 commitment to the UK’s research and innovation infrastructure.

Regarding C-MASS, Dr. Ceri Williams, Head of Strategic Projects and Infrastructure at the UKRI Medical Research Council, told IBO, “Establishing C-MASS will enable a step-change in impact from new high-throughput [HT] and high-precision [HP] MS investment. It will operate a hub-and-spokes model to link MS centers to develop, test, translate and disseminate new HT-HP MS approaches delivering unprecedented insights into the molecules that make up our world.”

The investment in MS instrumentation will encompass the latest developments in MS technology. Dr. Williams listed some of C-MASS’ plans for new instrumentation:

  • High-throughput, high-capacity Orbitraps, quadrupole multiToF [multi-reflection ToFs), and ion mobility mass spectrometers equipped with new rapid inlet systems
  • New high-capacity ion traps and multiToFs capable of multi-fragmentation modes for unequivocal structure determination
  • High-precision imaging mass spectrometers
  • Ultrasensitive inlets for subcellular and single-cell analysis

Data analysis and management play a crucial role in MS capabilities. C-MASS will focus on progress in MS data processing, such as data comparability, standardization and analysis. Dr. Williams listed several of the project’s goals in this respect:

  • Democratization of access to findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable data produced by C-MASS-assured community standards for use by the entire scientific community. Metadata cataloging and signposting to ensure that research builds on what has been done before
  • Standardized data analysis protocols to facilitate inter-lab and inter-technique result comparisons, using new AI and machine learning technologies for reliable and trusted data outcomes, hereby tackling the reproducibility issues identified in scientific research
  • Hub-to-signpost MS expertise and capabilities, coordinated data curation and standards, providing data scientists with an unprecedented resource to train next generation AI, machine learning and large language models to structurally analyze the materials that make up our world. Access to these datasets [to] significantly accelerate the development of new materials and chemicals through predictive modeling approaches

The investment will benefit a wide range of fields and sectors. Dr. Williams highlighted some:

  • HT-MS sample analysis capability to screen large sample cohorts and give insights into population-wide health markers, helping to influence future care pathways
  • New technologies to assist development of new materials in the pharmaceutical, batteries and polymers, biotechnology, semiconductors and advanced chemical sectors
  • Increased academic-industry collaborations in the UK and beyond to accelerate critical technology developments and skills development frameworks to address technology and skills gaps across sectors
  • Preparedness for challenges, e.g. signpost to core MS capabilities in response to future threats, such as climate change, future pandemics [and] food security

Dr. Williams emphasized C-MASS’ broad mandate. “C-MASS is not focused on a single research question but is enabling the next generation of UK research capability. Exemplar research challenges will initially be piloted.” She listed several of these challenges:

  • Discovery multi-omics analysis of large cohort studies, such as UK Biobank, to accelerate delivery of new HT clinical profiling methods by identification of novel biomarkers at a throughput of 500 samples per day
  • Enhanced HP-MS capabilities to gain deeper understanding of molecular structures and functionalities of new materials required for quantum technologies, semiconductors, batteries, catalysts, medicines and associated devices
  • High-sensitivity instrumentation to precisely identify and locate target compounds over a wide dynamic range from single/few cells, and in subcellular fractions
  • Structure determination of complex emerging pathogens using ultra-HP-MS approaches, discovering new targets for disease and improved development of drugs and drug delivery systems.

Asked about the hub-and-spokes model, Dr. Williams commented, “There will be one hub, although the hub delivery team could include one to three HEIs [higher education institutions]. We plan to have up to 12 spoke labs, in clusters of three or four, working collaboratively on strategic objectives that will be set by a scientific advisory board.”

Hub-and-spokes participants will be chosen through a competitive process. “Subject to business case approval in due course, an open and competitive process will be used to determine where the hub-and-spokes are located, with funding currently anticipated from financial year 2026/27.”

C-MASS is a major undertaking and will involve universities and research institutions. “The proposed hub-and-spokes model will build on significant existing UK MS networks and capabilities,” commented Dr. Williams. “The C-MASS infrastructure proposal followed 10 years of consultation and evolution and amassed tremendous support and partnerships with more than 40 HEIs, 35 industrial partners and numerous research institutes involved in its development prior to submission to the UKRI Infrastructure Advisory Committee.”

Describing the next steps now that C-MASS has received funding, Dr. Williams stated, “The project has been approved by UKRI Infrastructure Advisory Committee, subject to business case approval. We will be able to provide an operational update in due course.”

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