Illustration by Eric Chow


When Medicine Is Designed Just for You

Metabolism research could design your optimal diet or give advance warning of disease

By Katie Willis, '13 BA

June 23, 2018 •

Your doctor calls. The bad news? You're at risk of diabetes. The good news? Blood tests have caught it 10 years before you develop the disease. With changes in diet and lifestyle, you'll probably be able to avoid it altogether.

At the heart of this scenario is a science called metabolomics. You might have already heard the term in connection with that promising health‑care field called predictive medicine. Metabolomics is one key to detecting disease earlier - sometimes long before it occurs - and tailoring care for each patient based on that person's makeup at a molecular level.

"There's a huge impact in terms of lives saved and quality of life, not to mention dollars," says researcher David Wishart, '83 BSc(Hons).

He tells us a little more about what this science is and what it will mean for health care.

It's basically the study of metabolism

Metabolism is more than just how quickly your body processes food. It includes all the chemical processes inside our bodies. Metabolomics is the study of metabolites, tiny molecular compounds produced by, or involved in, metabolism. Think of eating an apple. Your body breaks the apple down into its chemical components through digestion and rebuilds them into whatever it needs, such as the proteins needed to create DNA.

Metabolites can predict diseases before they start

Some metabolites are biomarkers, molecules that can indicate disease. So, when researchers analyze a sample of blood or urine, they can look for biomarkers to see if a person has - or is at risk for - developing diseases. One pilot study is working to detect early-stage diabetes, says Wishart. "In many cases, we can predict the disease up to 10 years before it actually develops. If you can make an intervention before the disease develops, that can save thousands of lives."

There is even a urine test to detect colon cancer

The test, not yet available in Canada, will catch colon cancer at the polyp stage, without a colonoscopy. This early detection could improve cure rates from 50 to 95 per cent - with no need for invasive testing. It could also reduce health‑care costs by about $2 billion annually, says Wishart.

What else can metabolomics do?

Potential applications of metabolomics research go far beyond disease. There's personalized nutrition, understanding how and why foods affect people in different ways. There are implications for agriculture, understanding the nutritional content of different strains and species of plants and animals. Research can also be applied to veterinary science as well as to ecology.

And they share what they've learned

Wishart's lab makes its data freely available to anyone in the world. The Human Metabolome Project's database is accessed by millions of users each year. "Making ideas available for other scientists moves our whole field forward faster," he says. "We're helping patients, we're treating people and we're changing lives for the better."

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