18 June 2020

Using mobile Mass Spectrometry in the detection of COVID-19

Testing for COVID-19 is currently key to halting the spread of the virus. Our metabolomics facility manager Heather Walker has tackled this problem using mobile mass spectrometry, resulting in the publication of an article.

Heather Walker Open Day Picture

Lockdown provided one of our Facility members of staff some time to think about how mass spectrometry could be applied to the detection of COVID-19. Dr. Heather Walker, our metabolomics specialist, proposed a simple testing regime using breath analysis by portable mass spectrometry in an article accepted recently in Bioanalysis. Bioanalysis is a Future Science journal specialising in applied science and covering all areas of biotechnology and medicine, as well as topics in biological, life and physical sciences that are of relevance to human health.


Hopefully with the publication of this work the possibility of using mass spectrometers to detect biomarkers in breath as a test for COVID-19 will get closer to reality.

Dr. Heather Walker

biOMICS Facility Manager for metabolomics applications 


COVID-19 testing is already available however the current methods are not 100% effective and can take time. The race is on to find alternatives. Testing is at an early and critical stage and testing and detection methods have been needed very quickly. The current testing regime can take time and involves the collection and analysis of swab samples this has some disadvantages as not only can it give false negative results but also the best area to take a swab sample from may change depending upon how long someone has been infected with the virus. The situation therefore is dynamic and constantly changing.

For this reason breath sampling and analysis by mass spectrometry was put forward as an alternative and complimentary technique. Breath is a ubiquitous sample and taking samples of it is non-invasive and could easily be done by a non-specialist. Analysis by mass spectrometry is rapid and sensitive and with the advent of portable mass spectrometers it can be easily done at multiple sites by moving around the equipment rather than moving around highly infectious samples. The suggested method would be to identify biomarkers of infection with COVID-19 which may be possible even before any symptoms are seen.


Torion T-19

One of our portable mass spectrometers the Torion T-9 GC-MS


Heather said “Ideally we would like to test our hypothesis but unfortunately our laboratory is not currently equipped to deal with these samples. Hopefully with the publication of this work the possibility of using mass spectrometers to detect biomarkers in breath as a test for COVID-19 will get closer to reality”

Here is a link to the article, written in collaboration with a retired member of the group, Prof Mike Burrell. 

Could breath analysis by MS could be a solution to rapid, non-invasive testing for COVID-19?
Walker HJ, Burrell MM

Bioanalysis. 2020. doi: 10.4155/bio-2020-0125
PMID  - 32734782 

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