Getting to the heart of this science

June 6, 2008

Release Date: June 6, 2008
The StarPhoenix
Published: Friday, June 06, 2008

What is it that Phenomenome Discoveries is working on? How might it lead to better ways of treating major forms of cancer or deadly neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s?

Company founder Dayan Goodenowe does a good job of explaining, in lay language, what the science of metabolomics can do.

“Recognize your body is a bioreactor,” he said. “We breath air — it gives us oxygen — we drink water, eat food, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Our body takes this stuff and turns it into hundreds of thousands of different molecules. Essentially, you’re a walking bioreactor.”

While metabolic therapy may seem like something from the future, Goodenowe points out the British sailors, nicknamed “limeys” because they discovered eating citrus fruit could prevent scurvy on long sea voyages, had, without naming it, discovered vitamins, an early form of metabolic discovery and treatment.

Less than a century ago, the Canadian discovery of insulin to treat diabetes was another form of applied metabolic treatment. In the 1970s, the role played by high cholesterol in disease was a breakthrough in metabolic disease discovery that led to new treatment drugs.

If metabolics plays such a big role in human health, then why haven’t people been looking for more of these molecules?, Goodenowe asks.

“Everybody got caught up in the genomics revolution and the proteomics revolution (protein modelling) and they’ve kind of forgot some of the basic aspects of biochemistry that have really driven medicine.”

Youthful scientist Shawn Ritchie, who leads Phenomenome’s discovery team, says genomics is unlikely to provide easy solutions to solving diseases and metabolomics may prove a better pathway to treatment.

“It’s not like there is going to be a single gene fix that is going to cure a lot of these diseases,” Ritchie said.

The technology developed by Phenomenome identifies molecular markers expressed in metabolites and tracks how those metabolites look in healthy people versus people prone to a particular disease. It can also figure out why some people respond to new drugs and some reject those drugs.

“By using the mass spectrometer in combination with the infomatics, we can take blood samples from an average drug reaction group to a healthy group and identify which molecules are different.”

In the future, this science could show pharmaceutical companies the way to develop compounds to treat disease that are exactly like the compounds that already exist within humans who don’t have that disease.

Imagine, says Phenomenome Drug team leader Paul Wood, producing a drug that has no side effects at all, because it’s a molecular compound the human body recognizes in nature.