Metabolomics in Population-Based Research


Metabolomics is the study of small molecules of both endogenous and exogenous origin, such as metabolic substrates and their products, lipids, small peptides, vitamins and other protein cofactors generated by metabolism, which are downstream from genes. This approach has received more attention in recent years as an ideal methodology to unravel signals closer to the culmination of the disease process.

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Krista Zanetti, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D.
Program Director, Genomic Epidemiology Branch

The compounds identified through metabolomic profiling represent a range of intermediate metabolic pathways that may serve as biomarkers of exposure, susceptibility, or disease. In short, it is a valuable approach for deciphering metabolic outcomes with a phenotypic change.

Until recently, metabolomics and other post-genomic platforms, such as proteomics and transcriptomics, have not been suitable for large-scale, high-throughput epidemiologic applications. Studies that employed metabolomics technologies have focused on toxicological, physiological, and disease responses in animal models and small-scale human studies. This has been due mainly to the limited capacity of the analytical platforms for sample throughput and the processing requirements for the enormous amounts of data created.

Improved sample preparation, robotic sample-delivery systems, automated data processing, and use of multivariate statistical and chemometric methods, with associated reductions in cost, are now allowing researchers to realize the potential for metabolic phenotyping in epidemiology. Investigators have begun to extend these studies to larger-scale population studies for biomarker discovery. With these studies comes the challenge of applying metabolomics technologies in a manner that generates meaningful results. Epidemiologists must strive to comprehensively understand the principles of metabolomics to determine when it is appropriate to use biomarkers identified using this technology, which includes the ability to determine when biomarkers have been validated sufficiently.

Funding Opportunities

There are not currently any specific NCI Requests for Applications (RFAs) or Program Announcements (PAs) for metabolomics research; however, EGRP encourages investigator-initiated grant applications on these topics.

EGRP joins with other NCI Divisions, Offices, and Centers and other Institutes and Centers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund grant applications submitted in response to FOAs.

View the full list of EGRP FOAs

Metabolomics and Epidemiology Working Group

The Metabolomics and Epidemiology (MetEpi) Working Group was established in 2012 to promote strategies to establish additional capacity to support metabolomics analyses in population-based studies, as well as to advance the field of metabolomics for broader biomedical and public health research.

The Working Group will also serve to develop, facilitate and support new and existing approaches for the use of metabolomics technologies in epidemiology research studies across various disease states through the missions of the National Cancer Institute (NCI); the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK); other NIH Institutes such as the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI); National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS); and other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Learn more about the MetEpi Working Group

NIH Metabolomics Interest Group

The Metabolomics Scientific Interest Group was created to help stimulate more interest in the field and aims to bring interested NIH program officials, intramural investigators and others together. The group will have periodic webinars and seminars that highlight recent work in the field. Additionally, a listserv is used to communicate information on upcoming metabolomics-related seminars, funding opportunities, and other NIH activities and initiatives.

Any member of the scientific community who is interested in the field of metabolomics and keeping abreast of NIH metabolomics-related activities and initiatives, please consider joining the Metabolomics Scientific Interest Group.

Relevant Research Resources

NCI Metabolomics Resources

  • COnsortium of METabolomics Studies (COMETS)
    This extramural-intramural partnership promotes collaboration among prospective cohort studies that follow participants for a range of outcomes and perform metabolomic profiling of individuals. The aim of COMETS is to facilitate an open exchange of ideas, knowledge, and results in order to accelerate the study of metabolomics profiles associated with chronic disease phenotypes (e.g. heart disease, diabetes, cancer).
  • Metabolomics Quality Assurance & Quality Control Consortium (mQACC)
    This consortium aims to engage the metabolomics community to communicate and promote the development, dissemination, and harmonization of quality assurance and quality control best practices in the field of untargeted metabolomics.

NIH Metabolomics Resources

  • The National Institutes of Health Common Fund established the Metabolomics Program in 2012 to increase the national capacity in metabolomics. The goal of this funding program is to advance several core areas, including comprehensive metabolomics resource cores, metabolomics technology development, metabolomics reference standards synthesis, and training and educational activities in metabolomics. This investment will provide researchers with opportunities to increase the use of metabolomics in population-based studies, which will allow for broader biomedical and public health applications, including biomarker discovery, dietary assessment, and pharmacometabolomics, among others.

    The NIH Common Fund Metabolomics Program has been approved for a second stage of support from fiscal years 2018-2021. In the second stage of the program, Common Fund will continue to support the development of resources that catalyze the effective use of metabolomics in basic and translational biomedical research. Investments in the second phase will focus on establishing a robust national repository for metabolomics data with the goal of making all NIH-supported metabolomics data publicly accessible and available for reuse; developing new computational tools to facilitate the analysis and interpretation of complex metabolomics data sets; and supporting projects to expedite unknown metabolite identification.

  • The University of California San Diego's Metabolomics WorkbenchExternal Web Site Policy, a resource sponsored by the NIH Common Fund, is a scalable and extensible informatics infrastructure which serves as a national metabolomics resource.

Metabolomics Webinars and Workshops