Metabolites have been used as biomarkers for decades. The presence of sugar in urine for diabetes may be their oldest application, but in the past five or six years, their occasional use has become the discipline of metabolomics. This attention to metabolites is resulting in a growing number of biomarkers that is transforming the industry.
“It’s difficult to dissect ‘biochemistry’ from ‘metabolomics’ in research. Where classical approaches end and ‘metabolomics’ begins is something of a philosophical question,” notes Anthony Walker, Ph.D., partner, Alacrita.
However, “It is probably fair to say the value of metabolomics will be as surrogate markers of active protein pathways, which may help guide more targeted analysis of gene and protein expression to discover new targets and disease markers. In terms of drug discovery, the main area of focus has been monitoring toxicology studies and predicting their outcomes.”
According to Dr. Walker, the next five years will see a continued focus on the central relevance of regulatory pathways across all therapeutic areas and their relevance to the production of metabolites.
“Essentially all of biology is regulated by proteins interacting with substrates to manifest a particular biological event—nucleic acid transcription and translation, protein and amino acid recycling, energy transfer, anabolic processes, catabolic processes, active transport, et cetera,” he continues.
“Metabolomics provides a selected view of the end-products of a set of these processes. That will be an important addition to knowledge but, in the near term, may be a relatively poor substitute for measuring the protein pathways and their activation status directly.
The big change, as he sees it, is the realization that such pathway analysis applies to neurobiology as much as to oncology, metabolic disease, inflammation, etc.
“Systems biology approaches are likely to become much more prominent. It’s clear that everything interacts, and much historic progress has been made on the basis of reductionism,” Dr. Walker says.
That approach has yielded breakthroughs, “but ultimately, a holistic, systems-wide approach will be needed to explain the huge degree of biological complexity,” he explains, while suggesting that making tangible advances in metabolomics may require another 20 years of research.