With a $9.3 million startup grant from the National Institutes of Health, the University of California, Davis, has announced plans to open the West Coast Metabolomics Center, a high-tech consortium of research and service laboratories that will help scientists better understand and develop more effective treatments for complex diseases like diabetes, cancer and atherosclerosis.
The facility, which will be housed within the UC Davis Genome Center, will celebrate its grand opening Oct. 8 with a mini-symposium featuring UC Davis and regional scientists, and corporate supporters.
Metabolomics is a new field that looks at the biochemical changes taking place in living cells during metabolism. The West Coast Metabolomics Center at UC Davis will use more than 30 mass spectrometers — instruments for analyzing chemical structures — to target thousands of different molecules produced in cells, allowing researchers to look at changes taking place at specific times and under specific environmental conditions.
“The NIH recognizes metabolism as a very important part of human physiology and disease processes,” said Oliver Fiehn, professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of the new center. “When you analyze metabolism, you can tell the state of the body at the onset and during the progression of diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to cancer.”
It will help researchers throughout the western U.S. with small grants for annual pilot and feasibility studies, provide courses, statistics and bioinformatics services, and perform metabolomic analyses on a fee-for-service basis. The center is designed to be self-sustaining within five years.
One of researchers who plans to use the new center is UC Davis Professor Bruce German, who studies lipid metabolism, especially in milk production, in the Department of Food Science and Technology.
“This new center shows the effects of the university’s long-term investments into biochemistry and genomics,” German said.
One of the center's first big projects will be as part of a large international study, led by the NIH, to look for environmental causes of childhood diabetes. Juvenile, or Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to destroy pancreatic cells that produce insulin, and people with the disease must inject insulin regularly in order to survive.
Called the TEDDY study — The Environmental Determinants of Type 1 Diabetes in the Young — the project will track nearly 8,000 children over a three-year period to try to identify factors such as infections, diet, stress or other conditions that may trigger the disease.
“We know that children who get Type 1 diabetes all have certain gene signatures, but most children with those same genes don’t get the disease,” Fiehn said. “Researchers now believe there’s an environmental trigger — something that activates those genes and causes the disease. Metabolomics is a way to try to identify those environmental triggers by seeing what’s happening inside the cells over time. In addition, metabolomics is a chemical screening tool that might find further environmental cues, including pollutants.”
The West Coast Metabolomics Center will analyze blood samples taken from children every three months during the study period, providing data to researchers that may help them identify a single factor or series of factors that trigger the disease. The TEDDY consortium will pay more than $1.5 million for the services provided by the new center.
Another promising aspect of metabolomics research is creating individualized treatments for people with certain diseases, or choosing the best available treatment for a patient.
Metabolomics could be used to determine the best dose of treatment for a patient. People with higher metabolisms may need higher doses of drugs than people with lower metabolisms, for example.
"Understanding metabolomics and disease response will help scientists to develop new therapeutic strategies," said Professor Ralph de Vere White, director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. "This metabolomics research center will allow the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center to advance this exciting area in cancer research, more deeply understand underlying mechanisms, and improve treatment options for patients."
The West Coast Metabolomics Center at UC Davis has received instrumentation support from mass spectrometry equipment companies Agilent Inc. and LECO Corporation.