Conference and Professional Development Grant recipient: Anthony Don

1 September 2014

TCRN member Dr Anthony Don attended the “Metabolomics 2014” conference held in Tsuruoka, Japan, thanks to a TCRN Conference and Professional Development grant.

“The field of metabolomics involves the measurement and study of metabolites in biological specimens such as blood or urine” explains Anthony, head of the Metabolite Signalling group in the Adult Cancer Program at UNSW Australia. “In the context of cancer, this is particularly important and useful for disease diagnosis, but also for understanding the drivers of cancer development and malignancy” he says. “Metabolites and human biochemistry are the basis for the vast majority of clinical tests (approximately 90%) due to their accuracy, reproducibility and low cost”.

Anthony was invited to give an oral presentation at the conference, entitled “Reconfigured sphingolipid metabolism drives glioma angiogenesis and malignancy”, in which he described how a combination of lipid profiling and gene expression studies were used to characterise changes to lipid metabolism found in malignant gliomas (brain cancer). As lipid metabolism in glioma cells differs from that in normal human glial cells, this may present an attractive opportunity for therapeutic targeting.

Anthony considers metabolomics to be amongst the most powerful technology currently available for diagnosing early stage cancer in blood or urine. “As with all 21st century research, the best outcomes are likely to be achieved through multi-investigator, cross-platform collaboration rather than individual stabs at metabolomic profiling” he says. “Cross-platform integration of genomic, transcriptomic, and metabolomic data is now "where it's at" in terms of gaining a comprehensive understanding of cancer biology at the systems level”. Anthony believes that although the study of cancer genomics is important, there is an over-reliance on this area of research.

“With recent developments in metabolomic research, the diagnostic capacity of metabolites is projected to grow, despite advances in gene sequencing” he says. “This is a reflection that although genetic information is very informative, cancer initiation and progression are driven by a range of complex influences and genetic approaches cannot tell us everything, including what is causing the gene mutations in the first place.”

“The majority of factors influencing the development and progression of cancer are environmental and/or systemic (e.g. smoking, diet, inflammation)” explains Anthony. “Whilst it has been relatively easy to isolate smoking as being causative of cancer, environmental influences like food intake - which are important risk factors in cancer - are more difficult to gauge and quantify through questionnaire-based research.” He argues that this is where metabolomics is becoming increasingly powerful: “This technology can now quantify the metabolites in blood or urine that are attributed to human metabolism, to the human microbiota, and to diet and food metabolism. As an example, there are metabolites that are very specific to apples or coffee that can be detected and quantified in the urine, allowing epidemiologists to quantify the influence of these factors on cancer risk in large cohort studies.”

“The opportunity to attend Metabolomics 2014 has given me a better understanding of the current state of metabolomic research and its integration with genomic and gene expression data” says Anthony. “Of particular use were talks describing the power of metabolomics in understanding the causes of cancer - of all the "omic" technologies, metabolomics has the greatest power to resolve and quantify the influence of both genetic and environmental factors in the development of this disease. This is a point that is frequently missed in the gene-centric field of cancer research.”