Measuring metabolites at the molecular level can have profound implications on patient care, says a Concordia researcher
We all want better medication and the knowledge to treat illnesses better. But finding the treatment that is right for you — and perhaps only you — can be an exhausting process of trial and error.
Fortunately, it is slowly becoming easier, thanks to a growing genetic-level understanding of human biology, and our understanding of how genes interact with each other and with non-genetic factors.
Welcome to metabolomics: a relatively new field of study that Nature Methods has called one of the top 10 methods to watch in coming years. It’s a field that has Concordia bioanalytical chemist Dajana Vuckovic very excited.
In a new paper in the journal Chemical Communications, Vuckovic, associate professor and Concordia Research Chair in Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the director of the Centre for Biological Applications of Mass Spectrometry, lists some of the challenges facing the field today.
She also discusses how researchers can use metabolomics to improve patient care via personalized medicine.
“Metabolomics is the science of measuring small metabolites in a biological sample, usually blood, urine or saliva,” says Vuckovic.
“The metabolites that we want to measure can be lipids, sugars, vitamins — any kind of molecule that is produced by the body. We are measuring the product of gene and protein activity. What makes metabolomics different from classical approaches is that we aim to measure hundreds or thousands of these metabolites in a single analysis.”
So while the related field of genomics looks at the genetic makeup of a biological system as essentially a blueprint for an organism, metabolomics looks at what happens inside a system when all its parts are working at a particular instance in time.
In simple terms, the genetic make-up of an individual will be the same when they are a baby, a teen, a middle-aged man or a senior. However, their metabolomic profiles will be vastly different, even from day to day, and give us a new level of biochemical information on that individual.
“The gene encodes and makes the protein, and these proteins make the molecules we want to measure,” she says. “By measuring these molecules at the same time, we can understand their pathways and how different things affect them. That can be disease, diet, exercise, a medication we took — any of these will be visible in our metabolomic profile.”
As exciting as the field is, Vuckovic identifies several important challenges facing researchers. One is learning to separate endogenous metabolites—the genetic components synthesized by the organism, or metabolome — from those that are exogenous, meaning those present as a result of diet, environmental exposure, personal cosmetic products and other external elements.
Other difficulties include issues of chemical diversity, their wide concentration range, and researchers’ abilities to identify metabolites with high degrees of confidence and accuracy.
Still, the potential for metabolomics is wide open, says Vuckovic.
For example, she sees great potential in the identification of biomarkers, the measurable substances that are often signals of the presence of a disease, infection or other environmental exposure.
By comparing samples taken from a healthy patient to a sample taken when that patient is ill, researchers could look for molecules that are present in one and not the other. That molecule could then become a biomarker for a particular disease.
The range of applications, she adds, is vast. Key areas include biochemistry and biological sciences, medicine, chemistry, agriculture, food safety, biotechnology, pharmacology, toxicology, drug discovery, immunology, microbiology and environmental sciences.
Her lab is also working on methods researchers can use to increase the number of metabolites they can measure in a single drop of blood.
“It is a hot field,” she says. “As we practice it now, metabolomics only really started in the early 2000s, after the genomic revolution. So there is a lot of methodological work to do on how we can better conduct our studies.”