What IS Metabolomic Science?

By: Richard Beger, Ph.D.

My 10-year-old son and 12-year old daughter asked me the other day, “Dad, we know you work doing science research in metabolomics for FDA at NCTR (i.e. National Center for Toxicological Research). But… (hesitating)…We’re not sure what metabolomics is. Can you help us understand?”

Dr. Richard Beger

Wow! My two pre-teen geniuses (OK, some bias may exist here) posed a simple, but interesting, question. How can I best describe, in plain language, the benefits of metabolomics research, and the many positive ways that research can affect a person’s life?

Well kids, I began, metabolomics is an exciting and growing field. The research data we work with can be used to help identify and explain genetic disorders and disease states, the particular stage a disease may be in, like “onset” of Alzheimers. The research can also help identify and explain a person’s bad response to a drug and what other factors in their environment might be playing a role in that response. For example, if an adult drinks a beverage like alcohol or grapefruit juice before a medical intervention and those liquids affect his ability to metabolize a particular drug, then that information would be taken into account when considering their response to that drug.

Or, researchers might use metabolomics nutrition and plant studies to find new soil conditions that might make a tomato grow better, or they may try to understand which set of metabolites might help tomatoes taste better.

Metabolomics is also used to understand how disease occurs. The current set of clinical chemistry biological markers, such as glucose for diabetes or cholesterol for heart disease, may not always diagnose a disease early or detect bad responses humans can have to drugs. Researchers use metabolomics to look for new biomarkers or patterns that can identify a disease. Discovering these new indicators may lead to earlier detection and safer treatments for diseases like cancer or diabetes.

My children looked fascinated! So I continued….

We get many of our answers from metabolites – things like lipids, sugars, and amino acids. These are the small molecule byproducts of metabolism. The way a cell transfers energy or communicates to other cells is controlled by metabolites. By looking at metabolites and/or chemicals in urine, blood, and tissue, we are able to get a “physiological snapshot” of living cells and the organism in which they exist, like the human body.

And that is what metabolomics is – the study of the molecules involved in metabolism in a living organism, by evaluating tissues and body fluids such as blood and urine, for metabolite changes.

At this point, the time-honored, “Ewww, gross” comments began to flow. The mention of blood and urine in the same sentence seems to do that to adolescents. But I persevered.

Using metabolomics, we also try to understand how a person responds to a drug. There are potential metabolomic biomarkers that show whether a person is having a good or bad response to a drug. Genetics, gender, age, taking multiple drugs, taking drugs in combination or with dietary supplements, and other factors may change the pattern of small molecules in a person. Today’s technology allows FDA researchers to detect hundreds of small molecules in a short period of time. The ability to see how a person’s patterns of small molecules – their metabolites – change can help researchers develop a more personalized medicine approach to human health.

“Cool,” the kids said. Indeed. Metabolomic science IS cool! If YOU would like to learn more about this exciting field, the 8th Annual Meeting of The Metabolomics Society, Metabolomics 2012, will be held from June 25-28, 2012 in Washington, D.C. In addition to FDA, The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and The Metabolomics Society will host the event.

Dr. Richard Beger is Director, Biomarkers and Alternative Models Branch, Systems Biology Division at FDA’s National Center for Toxicological Research, in Jefferson, Arkansas.

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