With New Year’s resolutions in full swing and many focused on getting in shape, there is no better time to discuss a three-letter word that is often taboo for many health-conscious individuals: Fat, or scientifically speaking lipids. For almost two decades scientists have been ardently working to specify and classify these fatty acids in order to develop techniques, tools, and terms to better study them. Now, an international team of chemists and biochemists has finally begun to “feel the burn” as their newly published data on understanding the complex nature of lipids could reshape the diagnosis and treatment of various acute and chronic conditions—from diabetes and atherosclerosis to cancer and autoimmunity.

“While the LIPID MAPS Consortium included a dozen U.S. investigators sponsored by the U.S. NIH, we invited scientists from Asia and Europe to join us in developing the LIPID MAPS Classification, Nomenclature and Structural Drawing Standards that contributed to international acceptance of LIPID MAPS,” explained study investigator Edward Dennis, PhD, professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego. “This led to the rapid development of the lipidomics field.”

Lipidomics—the study of lipids and the genes associated with their synthesis—is weighty in terms of its potential for precision medicine—an emerging approach for treating and preventing disease by considering an individual’s genes, environment, and lifestyle. Findings from the new study were published recently in Science Signaling through an article titled “LIPID MAPS: Serving the next generation of lipid researchers with tools, resources, data, and training.”

“Lipidomics is a significant part of the metabolomics, which is a measure of all metabolites in any species. Metabolomics can differentiate between a state of wellness and illness in humans,” noted senior study investigator Shankar Subramaniam, PhD, a professor of bioengineering at UC San Diego and who serves as the principal investigator on the National Metabolomics Repository Grant from the NIH.

With new methods for precision medicine expected to develop over the next 5 to 10 years, lipids are considered excellent candidates for integration with these emerging methodologies. Therefore, next-generation researchers are beginning to look at lipids with a more holistic, systems biology perspective.

Biologically versatile and essential, lipids help keep cells intact, store energy, and communicate signals within the body. They also function as termini for complex cellular and organ functions and denote normal and disease states. Additionally, they are easily accessible through blood and urine, and they are quantifiable. Yet advances are needed for new analytical, statistical and informatics tools to progressively study them. Since new lipids continue to be discovered, new technology is needed to reveal exactly how many lipids our cells contain, to locate new lipids and to determine in which cellular membranes lipid changes occur.

Beyond its emphasis on classification and structural representation, as well as its practice of openness and collaboration, LIPID MAPS has become a significant resource that helped to usher in the bioinformatics era. Now new researchers envision a big data picture of lipids study.

“The new Wellcome Trust funding for LIPID MAPS is vital in allowing us to build upon the excellence of the initial system supported by NIH,” concluded study investigator Michael Wakelam, PhD, director of the Babraham Institute. “We look forward to expanding the research opportunities that LIPID MAPS enable, particularly in the area of lipid pathway analysis while continuing to develop and maintain existing provisions and accessibility.”

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