Pee is key. Yes, that’s right. Body waste could be the pathway to better diagnosing and treating multiple forms of cancer, as well as pinpointing various forms of toxicity in our watersheds and fish populations.
Confused? Welcome to the world of metabolomics, where Aalim Weljie and Hans Vogel in the Department of Biological Sciences have been leading a group of researchers in this experimental technique for six years.
“We measure concentrations of naturally occurring small molecules (called metabolites) that are present in blood, urine and tissues,” says Weljie. “We’re looking for a pattern, or fingerprint, in the biological sample that can be used to learn about the ‘health’ of the organism.”
Metabolomics is highly interdisciplinary and is becoming widely used in biology, medicine and the environmental sciences for studying living organisms.
Weljie has parlayed his biochemistry background into helping unlock the secret around one of the most pervasive and worrisome human afflictions—cancer. No two cancer cells are alike, so identifying their unique qualities and charting their mutations gives doctors a better chance of battling even the grimmest forms of the disease.
He is using metabolomics to study more than 15 forms of cancer, including highly aggressive forms such as pancreatic and high-risk neuroblastoma in children. Through studying metabolites, he is looking for unique signaling pathways of cancer cells that can be used to detect and diagnose cancer earlier and better target treatments.
“Ideally, it would be great to get to a point where a simple blood or urine sample, as part of a routine medical examination, could detect markers of certain cancers so physicians could start treating them earlier,” Weljie says. “I think we’ll get there.”
Weljie is also involved with the University of Calgary’s Hamid Habibi in environmental metabolomics and is studying the effects of pollution and climate change on the health of fish in the Bow River.
“We know that certain fish that are captured downstream from sewage plants, or have exposure to multiple toxins, have actually changed gender,” he says. “Our research can help determine levels of aquatic toxicology and aid biologists in environmental monitoring and ecological risk assessment.”