What are metabolomics?
Genes are similar to the plans for a house; they show what it looks like, but not what people are getting up to inside. One way of getting a snapshot of their lives would be to rummage through their rubbish, and that is pretty much what metabolomics does. […]
Metabolomics studies metabolites, the by-products of the hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions that continuously go on in every cell of the human body. Because blood and urine are packed with these compounds, it should be possible to detect and analyse them. If, say, a tumour was growing somewhere then, long before any existing methods can detect it, the combination of metabolites from the dividing cancer cells will produce a new pattern, different from that seen in healthy tissue. Such metabolic changes could be picked up by computer programs, adapted from those credit-card companies use to detect crime by spotting sudden and unusual spending patterns amid millions of ordinary transactions.
This could be used for traditional medicine, both to prevent pathologies and to detect those that are already present so they can be treated. But another use would be as part of an early-detection system to defend against pandemics and biological attacks. As mentioned previously, network-theory can help us better use vaccines. But once you have a cure or antidote, you also need to identify people that are already infected but haven’t died yet, and the earlier you can do that after the infection, the more chances they have to live.
Once the techniques of metabolomics are sufficiently advanced and inexpensive to use, they might provide better data than simply relying on reported symptoms (might be too late by then), and might scale better than traditional detection methods (not sure yet – something else might make more economic sense). It’s a bit too early to tell, but it’s a very promising field.
This was cross-posted on the Lifeboat Foundation blog.