The next frontier: Metabolomics

By Tom Fortner • Published: August 18th, 2008
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

You’ve probably heard of the Human Genome Project. A few years ago, this Herculean effort resulted in the mapping of all the twenty-five-thousand human genes. Indeed, many believe that decoding the human genome has opened the door to a new age of personalized medicine.

But that’s only half the story. Make way for the Human Metabolome [met-uh-bul-LOME] Project. With much less fanfare, researchers at the University of Alberta have characterized approximately twenty-five-hundred substances called metabolites commonly found in the human body.

Metabolites are the molecules the body creates as it processes food, drugs and pollutants. They’re important because while human genes are crucial in influencing overall health and longevity, what your body is subjected to by the environment may be just as telling.

Metabolites show up in bodily fluids like blood, urine and saliva. Two well-known examples are glucose and cholesterol. While the links between these substances and human disease are well-documented, hundreds of metabolites have yet to be studied in such great detail.

Experts believe this relatively new field of study… dubbed metabolomics [met-uh-bul-LOME-icks]… could yield insights just as powerful as one’s genetic blueprint in detecting and predicting illness and determining which medicines are most effective for a given patient.

Scientists still need to establish the links between various metabolites and their associated conditions, and work on developing the extremely sensitive techniques needed to measure them. Indeed, finding the telltale metabolite may be like finding a needle in haystack. But that needle may point in the direction of better health.