The latest biotech “-omics,” metabolomics, could lead to earlier detection of a wide array of diseases.
Meet another installment in biotech’s “-omics” series: metabolomics. While doctors have been charting levels of individual metabolites like cholesterol for years, a growing number of researchers are measuring hundreds of metabolites-fatty acids, amino acids, and sugars produced by cells’ everyday activities-more systematically. They say this will enable earlier diagnoses of a wide array of diseases and provide a set of new tools for developing safer drugs.
To identify the most meaningful metabolites of the thousands in the body, several companies are making systematic measurements of metabolites in sick and healthy people, hoping to pick out a few dozen, perhaps, that can become critical early markers for diseases, or for toxicity in drugs under development. In some ways, the research is a natural extension of the growing understanding of the body’s many different genetic and molecular players, including genes and proteins. “We’re just realizing now that we’re looking at a small part of the picture by focusing on genomics and proteomics,” says Jeremy Nicholson, head of biological chemistry at Imperial College in London, England. Genes, he says, only tell you the potential for something going wrong in the body, and proteins only tell you which genes have been turned on, but metabolites show “real-world changes. They show that something has really happened to the body.”
One early payoff could be a better heart disease test. Metabometrix of London is, among other efforts, developing a blood test that would measure various combinations of metabolites-specific fat and cholesterol molecules-using standard chemical analysis tools. Software would then search through a database, comparing that metabolite profile to those of thousands of patients with and without heart disease. This blood test-which the company expects to bring to market in three years-would hopefully allow some people to avoid getting angiograms-the traditional method of diagnosis-which are expensive and invasive. The company, founded by Nicholson and colleagues at Imperial College, is also working on a similar test to diagnose osteoporosis, providing an alternative to x-ray bone-density scans.
The longer-term goal: prevention. J. Bruce German, professor of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, envisions people getting comprehensive metabolic profiles done during their yearly checkups. Of course, individual metabolites are already commonly tested. But more sophisticated tests could serve as far earlier indicators of impending diseases such as type II diabetes. And with the profiles, patients would get more fine-tuned instructions on how to correct their diets-though it’s unlikely they’ll ever be spared the lecture to eat healthier and exercise more.
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