There are some biological phenomena neither the genome nor transcriptome can fully explain. The field of metabolomics—the study of small-molecule metabolites—seeks to fill those knowledge gaps, giving researchers a glimpse of what’s actually happening within complex systems.
When it was founded in 2000, Metabolon was a pioneer in this fledgling field. With time, the private company has carved a significant niche in the global metabolomics market, and is now shifting focus from an initial emphasis on technology-driven biomarker discovery to the development and commercialization of diagnostics.
The Durham, NC-based firm, which rounded up its first financing in 2003, is now 140 employees strong. Roughly half its staffers are Ph.D. scientists who are working to measure, identify, and quantitate all of the small molecules in biological systems.
“We do what’s called ‘global analysis,’” CEO John Ryals, Ph.D., tells GEN. “In our view, it’s really…a profiling technology that would be analogous to a gene-expression chip, for example, where you could do unbiased analysis of small molecules and figure out what’s going on.”
Metabolon scientists use mass spectrometry and sophisticated data analysis techniques to deconstruct the chemical fingerprints left by cellular processes. With mass spec, “There’s way more noise than there is signal,” Dr. Ryals says. “So we’ve developed about 2 million lines of specialty code so that we can take this very complex signal coming out of a mass spec and be able to eliminate the noise, really zero in on the signal, and then interpret the signal.”
Taking this approach, Metabolon has serviced a variety of clients spanning from industry to academia. Typical projects include mode-of-action investigations for pharma and studies on everything from drought resistance in resurrection plants to cancer cell metabolism for academic researchers, the firm’s chief executive notes.
“Maybe they have genomic data or transcriptional data that they are having difficulty figuring out. You can use our approach to really narrow the focus as to what the issues are,” Dr. Ryals explains.
The company has also launched a diagnostic test based on its metabolomic technology. The single-draw blood test pairs an evaluation of three metabolites with an algorithm to detect patient insulin levels. It’s currently licensed to Richmond, VA-based Health Diagnostics Laboratory, which markets the test as part of its Diabetes Prevention & Management Panel.
And there are more tests in the works. Aside from type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related conditions, the company is planning to roll out diagnostics for cancers, including prostate, bladder, and renal cell carcinoma.
Both type 2 diabetes and cancer “are well-known metabolic disease areas,” Dr. Ryals notes. “The basic idea is to try to help the general practitioner or the family practice doc be able to better diagnose and get into early interventions with patients,” he adds.
Metabolon has also set its R&D sights on the microbiome.
“Humans actually maintain about a hundred molecules in their blood at homeostatic levels being contributed from the gut microflora,” Dr. Ryals says. “We know that because humans don’t have the capability of making these things.” Some of these compounds, he adds, have already been implicated in everything from obesity to autism spectrum disorder, presenting significant potential for future diagnostic-minded efforts.
The field of metabolomics stands to gain from emerging interest in the microbiome and its effects. To Dr. Ryal’s mind, such interest shows researchers are again looking to metabolites as key indicators of health and disease.
“Because of the maturation of molecular biology and recombinant DNA, the world of biology has become very gene-centric,” he says. “But a lot of the problems we see, [though] they may be associated with genetics, when they actually manifest themselves it’s really about metabolism.”