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Metabolomics is the study of small-molecule metabolites in biospecimens such as blood or urine. In recent years, new analytical technologies and metabolomics methods have made it possible to measure thousands of metabolites simultaneously—a remarkable advance that could greatly accelerate progress in molecular epidemiology research.  The goals of MEB’s research in metabolomics are: 1) to conduct foundational methods research in the field; 2) to identify biomarkers related to diet/nutritional supplements, energy balance, and other exposures of interest to cancer research; and 3) to identify metabolic factors associated with risk in studies of cancer etiology, survival, and overall mortality.

Methods Research

Metabolomics methods continue to evolve rapidly, with new platforms emerging each year.  To ensure that these state-of-the-art technologies are scientifically validated, MEB regularly undertakes methodological studies that quantify lab reliability. We also evaluate effects of sample collection method and other handling factors on metabolite levels, and we conduct studies using multiple sample types (e.g., serum, urine, feces) so that we can compare findings by sample type.  

In the metabolomics field, there have been many recent intriguing findings, but they stem from studies with small sample sizes. There is thus a need for large studies that can validate findings and demonstrate their generalizability across many populations. Toward that end, MEB has played a key role in developing the Consortium of METabolomics Studies (COMETS), a consortium of 70+ prospective cohorts devoted to the study of human disease. As a COMETS partner, MEB has helped design novel methods for streamlining and standardizing data analyses across dozens of institutions. Among other efforts, we contribute to the development of data analysis software, harmonization of metabolite meta-data, and evaluation of platform comparability through split sample studies.

For more information, contact Steven Moore, Erikka Loftfield, or Rachael Stolzenberg-Solomon.

Biomarkers of Diet/Nutritional Supplements, Energy Balance, and Other Exposures

As MEB and other studies have shown, metabolomic analyses excel at capturing biomarkers of exposures, including biomarkers of diet/nutrition, adiposity, and environmental and chemical hazards. MEB uses metabolomics to examine exposures that may be difficult to measure, such as intake of foods that are not captured well by questionnaires or biomarkers of excess heating of food. To identify such biomarkers, investigators analyze data from randomized trials, feeding studies, and other controlled studies, and long-term exposure studies based on, for example, repeat 24-hour recall instruments. MEB also uses metabolomics to characterize the biological effects of common exposures, such as examining plasma and serum metabolic profiles of sodium intake, lipid-soluble vitamins D, E and A, tooth loss, and excess adiposity. Such metabolites can then be carried forward to etiologic studies to examine associations with cancer and other health outcomes. Additionally, MEB also studies interrelationships between metabolites and the microbiome. 

For more information, contact Demetrius Albanes or Rachael Stolzenberg-Solomon.

Studies of Cancer Etiology and Survival

Recent cancer cell biology research highlights that malignancies are, in many respects, metabolic diseases, but epidemiologic data on cancer’s metabolic causes have been sparse. MEB conducts several types of metabolomics studies to investigate metabolism’s role in cancer etiology and survival. In prospective nested case-control studies, MEB investigators have been examining associations between 100s to 1000s of metabolites from pre-diagnostic blood and risk of cancers of the prostate, pancreas, breast, liver, colon, and kidney. Investigators have also leveraged specialized assays to optimize measurement of bile acids and lipids (e.g., lipidomics) in further etiologic studies. Many MEB studies particularly examine whether metabolites explain known exposure-cancer relationships, such as the associations of obesity, alcohol, coffee, and vitamin supplement use with cancer risk. In these studies, investigators quantify the degree to which distinct exposure-related metabolites mediate known associations and explore the mechanistic pathways implicated by those metabolites. Going beyond cancer endpoint studies, MEB and other DCEG investigators also use metabolomics to clarify the biology of important cancer precursors such as nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, Li-Fraumeni syndrome, and monoclonal gammopathy of undetermined significance. We also are using metabolomics to evaluate associations of metabolites with overall mortality and cancer survivorship.

For more information, you may contact Steven Moore, Demetrius Albanes, Rachael Stolzenberg-Solomon, or Katherine McGlynn.

Research Highlights