You may have heard that personalized health care
is in our not-so-distant future. But for some Faculty of
Science researchers, the future is already here. These
trailblazers study the human body on a molecular level.
Lovingly referred to as omics, scientists in this field
are experts in genomics, proteomics, metabolomics,
and glycomics. Despite their main subject of study—from genes to proteins and metabolites to sugars—the main thrust of omics research is to understand
our world molecule by molecule, examining how each
unique element combines and interacts to shape each
one of us in unique and dynamic ways.
Learn how these Faculty of Science omics researchers
are leading the way in metabolomics and glycomics and
changing the face of health care, both in Canada and
around the world.
What if you knew now how healthy (or unhealthy) you'd
be in 10 years? And what if, armed with that information,
you were given simple, straightforward solutions to
implement now that would prevent you from becoming
ill in the future in the first place?
Sound like science fiction? Believe it or not, the science
behind these impressive ideas already exists, thanks
to a revolutionary field of research called metabolomics.
Predicting and preventing disease
Metabolomics is the study of
metabolism, and it is one key to
predicting and detecting disease,
explains biochemist David Wishart
Through his research, Wishart
and his colleagues identify and
catalogue every chemical in the
human body, looking for patterns
that correspond to different illnesses. This work allows practitioners to tailor care for each patient,
based on their makeup at a molecular level. "There’s a huge impact in
terms of lives saved and quality of life, not to mention dollars,"
For example, one study uses
biomarkers in blood 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."
Another 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. It could also
reduce health‐care costs by about
$2 billion annually, says Wishart.
Wishart's research at the
Metabolomics Innovation Centre
at the U of A and his work through
the Human Metabolome Project are
available, open access, to researchers
around the world and are accessed
by millions of users each year.
"Making ideas available for
other scientists moves our whole
field forward faster," Wishart says.
"We’re helping patients, we’re
treating people, and we're
changing lives for the better."
Much like metabolomics,
glycomics is the study of certain
molecules in a biological system,
only in this case, the focus is on
sugars, rather than metabolites.
Chains of sugars, called glycans,
play a major role in human
health—from the benefits of
breast milk to the functioning
of our immune systems. The
most abundant biomolecule on
the planet, sugars are one of the
fundamental building blocks of
our bodies and the world around
us. And the better we understand
them, the larger the role glycomics
can play in health care.
Why breast milk benefits babies
As any parent knows, human breast milk
has many benefits for infants, including
protection against pathogens such as
norovirus and cholera, providing prebiotics
to promote the growth of a healthy microbiota,
and supporting the developing immune
system. Many of these health benefits come
from sugars in the breast milk called human
milk oligosaccharides, or HMOs. But for
parents who do not or cannot nurse their
babies, formula cannot provide the same
protections and natural benefits as breast
milk, because it lacks this key ingredient.
To help formula makers help mothers,
enter UAlberta chemist John Klassen, the
scientist behind the launch of a new HMO
library screening facility.
Klassen and his colleagues have developed
a mass spectrometry technique for studying
the interactions that HMOs make with human
and microbial proteins. The technique identifies
HMO binding from changes in the molecular
weights of proteins. By gaining key insights
into how HMOs work, Klassen aims to help
formula producers emulate the natural benefits
of breast milk.
UAlberta has an impressive track record of
glycomics expertise, from Ray (Sugar Ray)
Lemieux ('43 BSc, '91 DSc) to David Bundle,
Todd Lowary ('93 PhD), Chris Cairo, and
Ratmir Derda among others. The Faculty
of Science is proud to host two glycomics
powerhouses, including Alberta Glycomics
Centre as well as GlycoNet, the National
Network of Centre of Excellence, housed
at the University of Alberta.
"We now have an analytical method that can
really push this area forward," explains Klassen.
"Not only is it fast—we can screen our library
of more than 45 purified HMOs in about half
an hour—but it is exquisitely sensitive, and can
identify very weak interactions that are undetectable by other methods."
The screening facility will soon be available
to researchers around the world, including those
who work with formula makers. For parents, it
is one step closer to formula with the benefits
of breast milk.
What makes you immune
Antibodies are small proteins created in white blood cells that
prevent intruders—or antigens—from harming the human body. For
instance, vaccines help our bodies
to create antibodies for certain
diseases, like measles, before we get
infected, to keep us from getting sick
in the first place when and if we are
For chemical biologist Matthew
Macauley, the key to understanding
the human immune response is one
"Questions about the roles
for carbohydrates in controlling
immune responses are what
motivates me," explains
Macauley. "Tackling these
challenging questions with
chemical, biochemical, and
genetic approaches is powerful."
He's examining how
antibody responses, an aspect
critical for not only protection
from all kinds of pathogens but
also essential for understanding
how autoimmunity arises.
One of the diseases Macauley studies with his colleague
Klassen is Alzheimer's. The pair
are examining microglia, the
receptors for sugar on white
blood cells in the brain called microglia. These receptors can indicate who
is at risk for the disease and who is
not. "There are different forms of this
receptor, called protein isoforms, that
have been linked to whether people
are protected from the disease or not,"
says Macauley. "People who are protected from getting Alzheimer’s have
a version of that isoform that does not
bind to sugars—this is the key.
Groundbreaking research for tuberculosis diagnosis
Todd Lowary, Raymond Lemieux Professor of
Carbohydrate Chemistry, recently helped to
develop a urine test that can detect tuberculosis
in people living with HIV. TB is the most common
cause of death for those with HIV. The test will
improve the speed and accuracy of diagnosis,
providing earlier treatment and improving health
"If we can better understand
the correlation between sugars and
Alzheimer's, then changing or altering
the sugars could potentially alter the
disease," he adds.