NMR has a great role to play in structural biology and, in turn, systems biology

A New Perspective for the Future of Medicine Thanks to NMR Metabolomics

“An updated synopsis from Professor Ivano Bertini, CERM*, Florence derived from his original Euromar 2011 talk”

NMR has a great role to play in structural biology and in turn in systems biology. Its targets are proteins and nucleic acids. Small molecules in living beings, called metabolites, are an important chapter in systems biology and have always been markers of phenotypes and of health and disease.

Metabolomics is the youngest of the omic sciences. It looks to define all metabolites in a specimen, i.e. a biological fluid, a tissue, a bacterial culture, in mitochondria and so on. Mass Spectrometry is an important technique for detecting metabolites but this has some limitations with respect to the volatility of the metabolite, protection, and standardization of quality. It can, of course, reveal small quantities of a metabolite. However, NMR can be used to record the 1D spectrum of a specimen in whose profile contains information on all the metabolites with a concentration higher than 1 micromolar. Of course, single metabolites can also be detected and quantified, even if the number of them is only a few tens. It is estimated that urine contains about 2000 metabolites, whereas serum and plasma about 200, and tissue even less.

One goal could be that of establishing a database of NMR spectra of biological samples. In this way, Information Technology (IT) enters the field of metabolomics. Then software needs to be developed to analyze the spectra in terms of diagnosis, prognosis, and tendency towards diseases. Finally, a platform should be designed whereby NMR profiles can be analyzed together with genomic and epigenomic databases. Proteomic databases can also be included.

All of these analyses should eventually lead towards enabling Medical Doctor to provide personalized diagnosis and cures. This is the future of medicine, according to the ideas of a Coordination Action of the European Commission. A great and fundamental task lies in front of metabolomics researchers. They will have to define the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) for sample preparation, including handling, shipping, etc. Then the SOP for recording and storing NMR spectra. Finally, the IT part begins, and has to be developed. We should keep in mind that metabolomics is the youngest among the omic sciences and contains relatively little information. But spectra can be easily recorded and can be repeated over time for every patient.

In fact the changes in the spectra from the same individual are very instructive. This is why we may consider recording the spectra of million of individuals every year. If the repeated NMR spectra of serum of each individual is recorded in the chip of a ‘health card’ and we make the software for their analysis available, medicine will take a giant step forward.

*CERM applies nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to fundamental questions in Life Sciences. The center strives to make methodological advancements in NMR and tools for structure determination and assessment, and integrates bioinformatics and computational biology, electron nuclear relaxation and relaxometry, drug discovery, and structural proteomics.

For more information visit www.cerm.unifi.it

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