Metabolomics Key to Cancer Treatment

Molecular structure with circular DNA background
Article Summary
  • Metabolomics is the analysis of molecules that the body produces during its cellular processes.
  • It’s being used to develop more personalized and effective cancer care and cancer prevention measures.
  • Sylvester research fellow Dr. Melissa Lopez-Pentecost hopes her research will identify metabolic phenotypes of patients who will respond well to a particular treatment.

Researchers are using metabolomics — the analysis of molecules that the body produces during its cellular processes — to develop more effective and personalized interventions to treat and prevent cancer.

When two patients with cancer receive the same treatment, it’s not always clear why patients respond differently. If one patient goes into remission and another does not, or one is plagued with severe side effects and another finds the regimen manageable, what’s the cause?

Currently teamed up with David Lombard, M.D., Ph.D., co-leader of the Cancer Epigenetics Program at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Melissa Lopez-Pentecost, Ph.D., M.S., RDN, is part of a growing group of researchers turning to a field called metabolomics to explain why these differences exist and how doctors can identify the best treatment for an individual patient or use lifestyle interventions such as diet and exercise to improve outcomes.

What is Metabolomics?

Cells in the body are constantly building up and breaking down molecules into the chemicals that they need to function. For example, mitochondria, organelles found in most cells, use oxygen to create and store the energy that they need to function. In doing so, they create water and carbon dioxide as byproducts. When people drink alcohol, enzymes break it down into acetaldehyde and then acetate, which is eventually turned into carbon dioxide and water.

Researchers can take samples of blood, tissues and even tumors to look for byproducts like these, also known as metabolites. They provide a glimpse of the chemicals a person’s cells are processing and how efficiently they’re doing so.

Sylvester research fellow Dr. Melissa Lopez-Pentecost
Dr. Melissa Lopez-Pentecost

“Sometimes in research, we know that X may be associated with Y, or that X promoted Y,” said Dr. Lopez-Pentecost, a postdoctoral research fellow. “But we don’t know what’s happening in between. Metabolomics helps us identify the link between the exposure and an outcome.”

Scientists are starting to use metabolomics in a variety of fields, including cancer. For example, the presence of certain metabolites can tell doctors how a tumor is growing and whether or not it’s responding to treatment.

From Local Community to the Scientific Community

Dr. Lopez-Pentecost’s bachelor’s and master’s degrees focused on nutrition. She’d started doing research in the community but craved the ability to better connect her clinical work with cutting-edge lab research, so she pursued a Ph.D. in clinical and translational sciences. 

“That gave me an insight of how we can bring in something like metabolomics — which is often very isolated to clinic or to bench research — to the community and start leveraging that knowledge to create more innovative and impactful science,” she said.

Some of her earliest work revealed metabolic differences between people who were born in different countries that persisted even years after they had emigrated to the U.S.

“That just shows that environmental exposures are something we need to take a closer look at,” she said. “Here in Miami, we’re working with a large population of immigrants from different countries of origin.”

Knowing more about how exposures to different foods or environmental conditions affect their bodies can provide clues about how to improve their health.

Researchers Fight Cancer with Metabolomics

Dr. Lopez-Pentecost emphasizes that metabolomics only gives scientists a “snapshot” of what’s going on in a person’s body. To truly understand how to promote health and improve cancer treatments, researchers who specialize in metabolomics need to join forces with those who study genetics, proteomics and more.

Dr. David Lombard
Dr. David Lombard

“Epigenetics and metabolism talk to each other in important ways. There are certain metabolites generated by mitochondria, for example, that regulate gene expression,” said Dr. Lombard, adding that the reverse is also true. Changes in gene expression can alter metabolism.

Going forward, Dr. Lopez-Pentecost hopes that taking samples from patients before, during and after cancer treatment will help her identify metabolic phenotypes of patients who will respond well to a particular treatment, who will experience more severe side effects and who might be better off starting with a different treatment plan.

“Then we can avoid patients having to waste valuable time receiving a treatment that may not work the best for them,” she said.

Then, her team can develop precision lifestyle interventions involving diet and exercise that might help someone who wouldn’t typically respond well to the medication have a better outcome.

Metabolomics is “speaking a language to us,” said Dr. Lopez-Pentecost. “We just need to learn to understand it. Then we can come in with things like lifestyle interventions to give us an advantage in preventing disease or driving certain outcomes.”

Tags: cancer, Dr. David Lombard, metabolics, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center