BUSM's Costello Honored for Outstanding Achievement in Mass Spectrometry

For nearly 40 years, Catherine E. Costello has advanced the application of mass spectrometry to biomolecules, especially carbohydrates and glycoproteins. Costello is a professor of chemistry, biochemistry, and biophysics at BUSM and founding director of both the school’s mass spectrometry resource and its cardiovascular proteomics center.

Catherine E. Costello
Catherine E. Costello

“Early on, the scientific world pooh-poohed MS for structural characterization because most published mass spectra were of hydrocarbons. Even when MS was acknowledged as useful for other compound types, most thought that carbohydrate behavior was even less promising than that of hydrocarbons,” says Fred W. McLafferty, an emeritus professor at Cornell University. “More than anyone else, Cathy has shown us ‘lack of faith’ people that MS can really characterize terrible molecules such as sugars, carbohydrates, and glycoconjugates, and she has now convinced key researchers studying such critical biomolecules that MS is a first-choice resource.” In a paper that has been cited more than 850 times, Costello described the nomenclature for dissociation of glycans from glycoconjugates.

Costello has shown “prescient vision in collaborating with biomedical scientists on problems with high impact on human health,” says Peter B. O’Connor, a former colleague at Boston University who is now at the University of Warwick in Conventry, England. For example, she collaborated with D. Branch Moody at Harvard University in work that showed that isoprenoid glycolipids are involved with the immune system’s response to Mycobacterium tuberculosis infection. They also identified a previously unknown family of M. tuberculosis lipopeptides that activate T cells.

Working with Carlos B. Hirschberg at Boston University, she used mass spectrometry to determine the fine structure of N-glycans of the worm Caenorhabditis elegans and how N-glycans are specific to different developmental stages of that model organism.

In addition, Costello was one of the first to recognize the value of the MALDI (matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization) technique. She helped bring MALDI to a wider audience by encouraging Marvin Vestal that his company Vestec should start manufacturing a MALDI time-of-flight mass spectrometer, which became the first commercial instrument of its kind.

Costello received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Emmanuel College in Boston in 1964. In 1970, she received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Georgetown University, where she worked with Charles F. Hammer on NMR and organic reaction mechanisms. She was a postdoctoral associate with Klaus Biemann at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1970 to 1973, and there she made the switch to MS. She continued as the associate director of MIT’s mass spectrometry resource until 1994, when she became the founding director of the mass spectrometry resource at Boston University.

She has served in many scientific societies, including as a councilor of ACS, as president of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, and as senior vice president and currently president-elect of the Human Proteome Organization (HUPO). She received the 2004 Henry A. Hill Award from the ACS Northeastern Section, the 2008 Discovery Award in Proteomics Sciences from HUPO, and the 2009 Thomson Medal from the International Mass Spectrometry Foundation.

Costello will present the award address before the Division of Analytical Chemistry at the fall ACS national meeting in Boston.

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