The “Tricorder,” a mysterious diagnostic tool prominently featured on “Star Trek,” may be moving closer to reality, according to Teresa Fan, Ph.D., director of the center for regulatory and environmental metabolomics at the University of Louisville.
The current prototype is a two-story-high 800 MHz NMR spectrometer, with its attendant liquid nitrogen tanks. Dr. Fan and her co-workers are investigating metabolic dysregulation using stable isotope resolved metabolomics. Specifically, the studies involve the element selenium and its role in cancer prevention. The chemical form of selenium has been shown to have an anticancer effect.
Progress in NMR and mass spec make complex metabolomic characterizations possible. Molecules can be labeled with heavy isotopes and their progress can be traced in selenium-treated and control materials. Dr. Fan’s research has revealed that the anticancer properties of selenium are a result of the element’s effect on the disrupted Kreb’s cycle metabolism of the cancer cells.
These observations play into the concept of a noninvasive diagnostic instrument. “Our current understanding of the distinctive biochemical phenotype of lung cancer focuses on accelerated glycolysis and enhanced glucose uptake,” Dr. Fan said. In the future, metabolomic studies based on heavy isotope labeling could lead to early, highly sensitive diagnostics, avoiding the costly false positives that characterize current diagnostic tools.
In the last two decades many targeted approaches to discovery have been proposed, explored, and found wanting. Now a new contender is vying for attention, and preliminary results hold promise. As studies unfold, the promise of metabolomics as a refined tool for eliminating the weed patch of dead-end drug candidates will be vindicated or denied.