COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Ohio State University researchers are investigating the benefits of using a new analytical platform in the emerging field of metabolomics.
Experts say the platform has the potential to open doors for new discoveries in disease prevention and treatment as well as a wide range of innovative scientific projects involving foods, plants, animals and humans.
“Metabolomics involves analytical techniques to monitor all organic compounds, particularly metabolites, present in a cell—plant, animal or human,” said Steven Schwartz, professor of food science and technology in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and member of the molecular carcinogenesis and chemoprevention research program at the OSU Comprehensive Cancer Center - Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James).
Metabolomics in Ohio State Research
Schwartz and his team are using the equipment to study nutrients and phytochemicals, such as those in berries, tomatoes and soy, and determine why they might act differently in different people.
“For example, isoflavones in soy are often studied for cancer prevention, but results have been mixed. By analyzing blood, urine and other biological samples of people before and after they have consumed soy products, scientists can monitor for changes in metabolic profiles among intervention treatment groups and examine differences in different people,” Schwartz said.
“In untargeted metabolomics, we may detect several components and metabolites during our analysis, but it is often unclear which are relevant. With this new technology, when we discover something different and interesting, we can go back and compare groups of data to investigate specific relevance.”
Ohio State is using Agilent Technologies’ ultra-high performance liquid chromatograph/mass spectrometer equipment to begin training scientists on metabolomic techniques. The technology is being piloted in Schwartz’s Nutrient and Phytochemical Analytics Shared Resource (NPASR) within the OSUCCC-James and CFAES.
As a shared resource, the lab can make the equipment available for metabolomic studies to faculty within the OSUCCC-James, CFAES and other researchers at the university, said Schwartz, who also holds the Carl E. Haas Endowed Chair, is director of the university’s Center for Advanced Functional Foods Research and Entrepreneurship, and is co-director of Ohio State’s Food Innovation Center.
“In the human metabolome, researchers have identified about 1,500 compounds, but there are about 3,000 compounds that we can detect,” Schwartz said. “This new technology will tell us whether there’s been a change in the metabolome after an intervention. If there is, then we’d go back and identify what that change is, figure out what caused it and why.”
Other researchers, including Dr. Peter Shields, deputy director of the OSUCCC-James, will use metabolomics to study the effects of smoking on carcinogen metabolism and to uncover currently unknown impacts on the body.
“There is so much we still do not know about how carcinogens cause cancer,” Shields said. “Metabolomics lets us look at samples from people and see both cell products and what happens to smoke carcinogens. This is a critical step in identifying people most at risk for lung cancer from smoking, including those who have successfully quit and still get lung cancer.”
Metabolomics in Agricultural Research
Ken Riedl, associate director of NPASR, likened the field of metabolomics to the work on human genomics: “It’s the very big picture, trying to look at everything at once, but we’re working on small molecules instead of DNA.”
Horticultural, animal and agronomic molecular biology researchers at Ohio State — specifically those with CFAES's research arm, the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC)—will use the equipment to study the highly complex systems in the animal and botanical realm.
“The plant metabolome is much larger than the human metabolome,” Riedl said. “It makes sense -- plants can’t get up and run away from their predators, so they need to have a much more sophisticated arsenal of compounds and secondary metabolites at hand.”
OARDC Director Steve Slack said the equipment will help advance the center’s vision to be a premier institution recognized for its interdisciplinary research.
“We are in an extremely exciting era of biology where our knowledge boundaries of food and agriculture with human medicine have never been closer and so interdependent,” Slack said. “Critically sensitive instrumentation such as this are essential to keep our faculty at the scientific forefront.”
Schwartz said use of the equipment will likely create the need for additional professional staff.
“This kind of metabolic analysis generates a huge amount of data, and this field will in the future require more informatic data analysts focused on metabolomics,” Schwartz said. “The data sets are so extensive, they’re sometimes more challenging than we can handle and thus the need for mathematical scientists who understand how to statistically compare and mine huge data sets.”