Metabolomics Comes to UNC

A new resource helps researchers develop chemical signatures of health and disease.

Metabolomics Comes to UNC click to enlarge Arlene Bridges, PhD

By Marla Vacek Broadfoot

Disease can wreak havoc on entire organ systems, clogging the lungs of a cystic fibrosis patient with sticky mucus or destroying memory-holding brain cells in an Alzheimer’s disease patient. But on a much smaller scale, these and other illnesses also leave behind a telltale trail of thousands of chemicals in the bloodstream that encapsulate a person’s overall health and how they might respond to certain medications. Researchers interested in the study of these unique chemical fingerprints, a discipline known as metabolomics, now have a new resource on the UNC campus they can turn to for help.

Arlene Bridges, PhD, director of the ADME Mass Spectrometry Center at UNC, recently expanded the capabilities of her core facility to take on metabolomics projects. With the addition of a new mass spectrometer and two new sophisticated software packages, researchers can now look for differences in chemical makeup between individuals that could be harbingers of disease or could even point the way toward new treatments.

“Researchers come in either wanting to take a biased or an unbiased approach to metabolomics,” said Bridges. “With a biased approach, they already know the pathway involved, so they know which chemicals or metabolites they want to go after. For example, a researcher might have urine samples from subjects who are healthy and subjects who have a particular disease, and use metabolomics to look for markers that reflect the disease and could be used for earlier diagnosis.

“With an unbiased approach, they know one sample or group is different from another, but they don’t know how. For example, a researcher might look under the microscope and notice that one group of cells is physically different from another group of cells, and use metabolomics to see how they are chemically different. They might sound like the same kind of question, but they are different and use different machines and different software packages.”

The ADME Mass Spectrometry Center has five mass spectrometers, as well as HPLC (high performance liquid chromatography) systems and new analytical platforms for generating metabolomic profiles. The core facility can also tap into another powerful piece of software called Ingenuity IPA, which enables researchers to plug in the results of their metabolomics experiments to visualize the biological pathways and molecular networks that may explain the underlying causes of disease.

Some UNC researchers have already begun to tap into the power of metabolomics research by outsourcing to for-profit companies, such as Metabolon in Research Triangle Park. But Bridges says her core facility has the advantage of not just offering data but also giving training in how to prepare samples, run the mass spectrometry machines and use software programs to find solutions or even identify new questions. She offers one-on-one training to students, postdocs, and technicians throughout the year when requested.

“Your imagination just goes wild when you start seeing the data,” said Bridges. “You start wondering, 'What does this mean? What can you do with this information?' These experiments can uncover the kind of data that could lead to grant writing opportunities, not just a terminal publication.”

To schedule an appointment or learn more about the new metabolomics resource, contact Arlene Bridges at 919-370-6818 or argoyle@email.unc.edu.