Review Article

Mass spectrometry imaging: new eyes on natural products for drug research and development

Jin-jun Hou1,2, Zi-jia Zhang1,2, Wen-yong Wu1,3, Qing-qing He1, Teng-qian Zhang1,2, Ya-wen Liu1,2, Zhao-jun Wang1,2, Lei Gao1,2, Hua-li Long1,2, Min Lei1,2, Wan-ying Wu1,2, De-an Guo1,2
1 National Engineering Research Center of TCM Standardization Technology, Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai 201203, China
2 University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China
3 School of Chinese Materia Medica, Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, Nanjing 210029, China
Correspondence to: Wan-ying Wu:, De-an Guo:,
DOI: 10.1038/s41401-022-00990-8
Received: 13 June 2022
Accepted: 25 August 2022
Advance online: 13 October 2022


Natural products (NPs) and their structural analogs represent a major source of novel drug development for disease prevention and treatment. The development of new drugs from NPs includes two crucial aspects. One is the discovery of NPs from medicinal plants/microorganisms, and the other is the evaluation of the NPs in vivo at various physiological and pathological states. The heterogeneous spatial distribution of NPs in medicinal plants/microorganisms or in vivo can provide valuable information for drug development. However, few molecular imaging technologies can detect thousands of compounds simultaneously on a label-free basis. Over the last two decades, mass spectrometry imaging (MSI) methods have progressively improved and diversified, thereby allowing for the development of various applications of NPs in plants/microorganisms and in vivo NP research. Because MSI allows for the spatial mapping of the production and distribution of numerous molecules in situ without labeling, it provides a visualization tool for NP research. Therefore, we have focused this mini-review on summarizing the applications of MSI technology in discovering NPs from medicinal plants and evaluating NPs in preclinical studies from the perspective of new drug research and development (R&D). Additionally, we briefly reviewed the factors that should be carefully considered to obtain the desired MSI results. Finally, the future development of MSI in new drug R&D is proposed.
Keywords: natural product; mass spectrometry imaging; MALDI; DESI; molecular imaging; ion mobility

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