BEFORE an accelerator mass spectrometry measurement was ever performed at Livermore, Laboratory scientists began the process of pushing this physics-based technology across the disciplinary boundary into the biosciences. In July 1987, Ivan Proctor and I briefed bioscientists Mort Mendelsohn, Bart Gledhill, Jim Felton, and Ken Turteltaub on our "not yet real" AMS capability with a simple premise: "We are building a tool that can detect an isotope commonly used in your field with a millionfold increase in sensitivity. You can throw us out after an hour, but give us the hour." From that briefing, we created together an exciting collaboration and became the first group to realize the promise that had lain fallow for a decade since the invention of AMS-application of this exquisitely sensitive technology to biosciences. Academic collaborators continue to reaffirm that this disciplinary fence-hopping could only happen at Livermore.|
A decade later, we are well along the path that will eventually make AMS a biomedical and clinical commonplace, just as so many other physics-derived technologies have previously. (See the article on Livermore's Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry The potential of this tool has continued to grow and be recognized, so that even as we realize the promises made a decade ago, Livermore's practitioners of AMS can have their pick of collaborators worldwide for new projects. Academic and industrial researchers come here in a steady stream to learn the components of this technology and how to apply it to their needs.
Progress has required a combination of both science pull and technology push-plus a continuous education of collaborators and potential funders. The application to toxicology in support of the Laboratory's ongoing program to study food mutagens was an early and successful use of this immense gain in sensitivity. The subsequent spread of applications to clinical studies and screening of candidate pharmaceuticals could be anticipated, but not so the possibility of studying the expression of proteins by the human genome-at least not by the physicists and geochemists who first sought to apply AMS technology to the biosciences. As we find more examples of the differences between human and animal response to potentially genotoxic materials, the need to use this tool in assessing human health risks will become more important.
Technology push has an obvious and familiar direction: smaller, faster, cheaper, and friendlier. To make AMS viable in clinical and commercial settings, the spectrometer and its supporting molecular speciation and sample preparation hardware must make the transition from physicist-friendly to biologist-friendly. The need to reduce all costs by an order of magnitude or more means that the new device must be not only smaller and more cost-effective, but also physicist-free, a condition that startles and sometimes offends many of our friends in the traditional AMS fields. Additionally, the spectrometer must be able to be ordered to specification from an equipment supplier and maintained on contract as is other biomedical equipment-not assembled and operated as an experiment. We have program elements that address all of these needs and are working to create the industrial partnerships and relationships that will make the transition real.
Our interest in the biological area does not mean that we will abandon or disregard the other components of Livermore's AMS activities. The recent successful support of the U.S. Geological Survey's investigation of the seismic record of the Hayward fault (made possible by our participation in acquiring of samples from trenches on the fault and by 24-hour data analysis turnarounds) is one example of our continuing use of this tool in geoscience and environmental cleanup areas. Another is the use of AMS to measure unambiguously the destruction of subsurface creosote contamination at a commercial site. The article on isotope tracers provides examples of AMS's use in groundwater remediaton and water management. Exciting projects that will tell us more about the historical record of the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide are in progress, providing important information for the international dialogue on climate change.
We are a decade into the effort to create a new and valuable tool for the biosciences. The scientific and technological accomplishments are impressive, as are the social ones. A lipid biochemist has replaced a neutron physicist as the director of a significant accelerator facility-ours at Livermore. The next decade should see us well along toward a central goal for this activity-the replacement of scintillation counting with accelerator mass spectrometry in much of the biosciences.