We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Rewriting Life

Digestive Diagnostics

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.

This story is part of our February 2004 Issue
See the rest of the issue

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.

Beyond Genomics
(Waltham, MA)
Tests for heart disease and other diseases; drug efficacy tests
Lipomics Technologies
(West Sacramento, CA)
Toxicity and efficacy tests for drugs for heart disease and other diseases
(London, England)
Tests for heart disease and osteoporosis
Paradigm Genetics
(Research Triangle Park, NC)
More-sensitive tests for liver disease
SurroMed(Mountain View, CA) Tests for autism, heart disease, and other diseases

Countdown to EmTech MIT 2019. Join us as we unveil the Innovators Under 35

Register now
More from Rewriting Life

Reprogramming our bodies to make us healthier.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to All Access Digital.
  • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    The Download: newsletter delivery each weekday to your inbox

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.