RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — If you want a snapshot of your current health, the scientists at Metabolon, in Research Triangle Park, can provide it. They study metabolites—molecules produced by, you guessed it, your metabolism—in their lab. This is research in the cutting edge field of what is known as metabolomics.
“It sounds really far out there, but what we do is really simple,” says Mike Milburn, chief science officer at Metabolon. “We take a sample from a person, and that could be blood, tissue or cell culture and then we extract all of the molecules that are in it. And then with the technology behind me, we can measure and analyze over 1,000 molecules in that sample.”
That’s a little different from the traditional blood sample you might give at the doctor’s office. That sample is tested to measure glucose, cholesterol, free fatty acids and possibly a dozen other things.
The samples the researchers at Metabolon test are studied to measure over 1,000 individual molecules, which provides a much deeper picture of what is happening to a patient metabolically and biochemically.
Here’s another way to think of it.
The DNA found within the genes in your cells is the program that runs the body. Genes make us who we are. Metabolites are the products of what’s happening in real time as the cells and the body run the program. Metabolites are molecules, and together, those molecules form the metabolome. Everything works together. The molecules produced by one chemical reaction could trigger another reaction.
“Metabolites are kind of the mortar and the genes are the bricks, which make up the composite of a living system,” adds Kirk Beebe, Ph.D. and director of application science at Metabalon. “So that’s how important metabolites are; that’s how everything gets assembled and formulated.”
Each system in the body produces different types and quantities of metabolites.
And since metabolites are critical to the workings of every system in the body, researchers say studying metabolites provides a more complete picture of a person’s health.
So when I was asked to participate in a study, I quickly said yes!
Researchers are building a database to see whether the metabolites in the skin's oils could be used to build a lipid platform. Lipids are fatty substances in the body. Senior Research Scientist Kelli Goodman was assigned to collect the oils from my skin.
“Sebum is the oil on your skin, or what makes your skin shiny,” explains Goodman as she readies three tiny stickers that will be used to collect the oil. “So I’m going to wipe your forehead with alcohol to clean it off, then I’m going to stick three sebum stickers on you and that will extract the oil out of your pores. I’ll be back in about 30 minutes to collect the samples.”
Those samples will be included with more than 100 other samples in the database for the initial lipid study.
“Basically everyone is familiar with glucose and cholesterol, but there are hundreds of other little metabolites circulating in our cells and our blood that govern our health state and we can find some of those in the sebum we are collecting from your forehead,” adds Beebe. “Metabolism is the underpinning of blood pressure, temperature, all of the homeostatic processes that keep us going.”
That’s why researchers believe doctors could use changes seen in metabolites as an early indicator of disease.
A pre-diabetes test being developed at Metabolon is a good example of that thinking. Currently, a patient can get relatively well diagnosed if they are developing diabetes. Researchers hope to find fasting, blood-markers that could let a patient know they are becoming pre-diabetic. That way, exercise and drug treatment could be utilized to treat the condition and stop it before it develops.
In fact, metabolites can provides a wealth of information on a variety of topics.
Metabolon does about 800 studies each year for pharmaceutical, biotechnology, food and cosmetic companies, each helping them understand how their products work in your body. Take the case of cheerios.
The cereal maker General Mills had a cease and desist order filed against them by the federal Food and Drug Administration over claims that its product, Cheerios, would help in the fight against heart disease.
“But then there was a study done on Cheerios, and we did the analysis and we could show that yes, if you were on a diet of Cheerios, you have a positive effect on lipids that are bad for your heart,” says John Ryals, president and CEO of Metabalon. “And if you’ve noticed in the past few years they are back to heart health claims, and a lot of that was based on our ability to show that was happening.”
It’s part of the growing understanding of how health factors such as genetics, diet, lifestyle and environment change our biochemical composition—our metabolome.
And how measuring metabolites are crucial to our understanding of health and the factors that influence health.
“The beauty of this work is that we can take a sample and measure all of those small molecules at the same time and figure out at a particular point in time what is happening in your body,” says Milburn. “And if we see those types of changes we can tell the person you have an early stage of this disease, and with many of these diseases if you can catch them early you can intervene and solve the disease before it becomes a big problem.”
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