Dr. David Wishart likens his breakthrough scientific discoveries to opening an old treasure chest containing great wealth. The treasure chest is called metabolomics: the study of metabolites or small molecules that are the chemicals of life found in blood, urine, tissues or body fluids.
“We’ve reinvigorated and opened people’s eyes to another part of what we’ve long neglected in the scientific world,” he explains. “Science has been focusing on the sexy science in genes and protein chemistry. What we’re doing is almost retrospective from the perspective of working with small molecules in blood and urine. People thought that was done for in the 1950s.”
The research and technology we’ve developed promises to make the delivery of diagnostic tests much, much cheaper. And the quality of diagnostic tests will be much better. It’s too early to tell, but this research could completely change the way medicine is practised.
The Third Field
Because of Dr. Wishart’s groundbreaking research—metabolomics—is now recognized as the third treasure chest of the “omics” field, along side genomics and proteomics. And also because of Dr. Wishart, Alberta is now a world leader in this field. In 2001 he started Chenomx Inc. an Edmonton-based company, which is among the first commercial metabolomics enterprises in the world; and in 2008 he launched the Pan-Alberta Metabolomics Platform, a leading research facility dedicated to metabolomics that is spread over the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary.
Over the past decade Dr. Wishart’s team has been working on techniques that allow for hundreds of metabolites to be identified and quantified by nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and mass spectrometry. Early on, he recognized that these techniques depended on having a library of known compounds, which was limited. So in 2005 he launched the Human Metabolome Project, a multi-institutional, multi-million-dollar effort, based in Alberta, which revealed the human metabolome for the first time. In the course of completing the human metabolome, Dr. Wishart’s team helped pioneer innovative hardware, software, databases, chemical libraries, and methodologies that redefined what is being done with metabolomics.
Changing the Game
Most impressively, the Human Metabolome Project created the world’s largest collection of human metabolites, the most complete collection of metabolite spectral libraries and the most complete set of metabolite databases in the world.
“Twenty years ago, we were looking through a keyhole; today we’re looking through a picture window,” Dr. Wishart says. “The research and technology we’ve developed promises to make the delivery of diagnostic tests much, much cheaper. And the quality of diagnostic tests will be much better. It’s too early to tell, but this research could completely change the way medicine is practised.”
Dr. Wishart’s research was made possible by several government bodies working together, including Genome Canada, Alberta Advanced Education and Technology, the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, and the National Research Council.
“It was an interesting partnership between the provincial and federal governments,” Dr. Wishart says. “Together we opened new vistas in metabolic engineering.”