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Mapping the metabolome for tailored healthcare

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Everyone has a unique metabolic phenotype, or metabolome, that can be detected in their exhaled breath, according to a recent study. This dynamic “breathprint” could be used to make clinical diagnoses, to determine anaesthetic dosages and in doping tests. Ultimately it could pave the way for personalised medicine.

Breath samples taken from volunteers four times a day over nine days were analysed using a mass spectrometer, and researchers found that although some metabolites remained similar across all subjects, variations between specific compounds were unique to each individual.

The authors of the study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE, concluded that stable and specific breathprints could lead to breath becoming a “biofluid of choice” for metabolomic studies. The real time results and non-invasiveness of breath tests could make them particularly suitable for use in future anaesthesia or doping tests.

Other studies have shown that breath analysis could have a range of applications. A team from Israel showed that gas chromatography and mass spectrometry can detect stomach cancer from breath samples. And a separate US study demonstrated that the same method could identify patients suffering from heart failure.

The metabolome is the complete set of small-molecule metabolites (such as metabolic intermediates, hormones and other signaling molecules, and secondary metabolites) found in a biological sample. It is dynamic, changing from second to second. Although the metabolome can be defined readily enough, it is not currently possible to analyse the entire range of metabolites using a single analytical method.

Scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary finished a draft of the human metabolome in 2007. They have catalogued and characterised 2,500 metabolites, 1,200 drugs and 3,500 food components that can be found in the human body.

Although the sequencing of the human genome has created all sorts of opportunities for personalised medicine, the genome cannot account for factors such as lifestyle, interaction with the gut microbiome, or circadian cycle. Mapping the metabolome, which takes these factors into account, will allow healthcare to be tailored more accurately.

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