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What's Your (Metabo)Type? Metabolomics and the Pursuit of Personalized Nutrition

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The birth of the "genomic era" is marked by the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, whereby next-generation sequencing whittled down the complexity of a human being to a code of letters. Advances in high-throughput technologies have added further data, exploring the interactions between genes and the environment and vice versa.

As our knowledge of life at the molecular level continues to evolve, it becomes increasingly apparent that, to effectively understand and manage human health, a shift from a one-size-fits-all approach to focusing on humans at the individual level is required. We're already seeing the "promise" of personalized medicine being delivered in areas such as pharmacogenomics and cancer immunotherapy, but the insights garnered from omic sciences – such as metabolomics – are also impacting the way we think about nutrition.

A number of noncommunicable diseases are linked to nutrition, including diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. A variety of different dietary interventions have been proposed for the prevention and treatment of such diseases as an alternative to pharmacological medication. But we now know that individual differences in our biochemistry, metabolism and genetics all impact our response to nutrition, and prescribing the same intervention broadly will not produce the same result for each unique patient.

So how do we use the information obtained from metabolomics approaches to move towards personalized nutrition? That's the focus of this interview with Professor Lorraine Brennan, Conway Fellow and principal investigator at the University College Dublin Institute of Food and Health where she leads the Nutrition, Biomarkers and Health research group.

Molly Campbell (MC): Why is it important that humans move towards a personalized nutrition approach, as opposed to a "one-size-fits-all" approach?

Lorraine Brennan (LB): The realization that there are huge inter-individual responses to dietary interventions is pushing us to re-think our concepts. While dietary recommendations may be a good diet for all, they may not represent the optimal diet for all. To take into account the individual, we have to start understanding individual responses and metabolomics has huge potential in this regard. The emergence of precision nutrition will help pave the way forward for the development of more tailored dietary advice.

MC: In your opinion, what have been some of the most exciting developments in metabolomics and nutrition research over the past few years?

Metabolomics has had a major impact in nutrition research. The whole area of dietary biomarkers has completely evolved as a result of developments in metabolomics. In particular, there is growing interest in the use of objective biomarkers of food intake and metabolomics offers a route into the identification and development of novel biomarkers. The further development of these biomarkers should allow us to develop more accurate methods for assessment of food intake. With respect to understanding the mechanisms underpinning the health benefits of certain diets metabolomics has played a key role both in intervention studies and also in epidemiology studies. Continued expansion of the metabolome coverage offers great opportunities for nutrition research.

MC: Your laboratory focuses on the development of metabolomics for nutritional research. Can you please tell us about your key focus points within this field?

I have a large program of research focussed on the identification, development and use of food intake biomarkers. One of the key challenges we face in the field of human nutrition is our poor ability to assess dietary intake. Our current methods have a number of well-established limitations and food intake biomarkers offer a new and objective approach. We are working on development of new biomarkers and also on working out how to use such biomarkers in nutrition research. We are also working on precision nutrition and new methods for delivering personalized dietary advice to individuals.

MC: You recently published a review paper outlining metabotyping and its role in nutrition research. Please can you tell us more about metabotypes – what they are and how they can be used to identify an individual's response to a dietary intervention?

Metabotypes are groups of individuals defined on the basis of their similarities in metabolic profile, which in turn results from an interaction between lifestyle, gut microbiome, genes and environmental factors. With respect to dietary interventions application of a metabotype approach has led to the identification of groups of subjects with distinct metabolic phenotypes/metabotypes and unique responses. The metabotype approach represents a tool through which we can start to understand individual responses to interventions, with the ultimate goal being to employ it for the delivery of personalized nutrition.

MC: What key technologies do you utilize in your lab? Are there any challenges that come with using such methods?  

We use nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and mass spectrometry-based metabolomics approaches. We find that both approaches complement each other. One of the key challenges for us is metabolite identification. As we are interested in metabolites that originate in food, many of the metabolites we wish to identify are not present in databases. As a consequence, we put a huge effort into compound identification. I think that we need to work together as a community to improve this and make significant breakthroughs. Cross-lab collaborations could make significant advancements in this area.

MC: In your opinion, what is the greatest barrier to introducing a personalized nutrition approach on a global scale?

We are still building the evidence base for personalized nutrition. More research is needed to understand the responses to diet. The results to date are very encouraging, and more research is needed to define the optimal diet at an individual level.

Professor Lorraine Brennan was speaking to Molly Campbell, Science Writer, Technology Networks.


The article was updated on October 14, 2020 to include the correct version of the review paper outlining metabotyping and its role in nutrition research published by Professor Lorraine Brennan.