Metabolomics expert Dr. Daniel Raftery recently joined the Hutchinson Center faculty with an appointment in the Public Health Sciences Division. Raftery will be continuing his search, started six years ago at Purdue University, to detect the earliest stages of cancer by observing changes in cells' metabolism.
The body's metabolism, how we transform food into life-sustaining energy, happens in a series of chemical reactions in our individual cells. Several new findings in cancer metabolism have been discovered in the past few years, Raftery said, and it turns out that cancer cells produce and use energy in a unique way. He hopes to exploit these differences to detect cancer much earlier than current methods allow.
Raftery, who came to Seattle Jan. 1 with a primary appointment in the University of Washington Department of Anesthesiology & Pain Medicine, doesn't expect to find one metabolite—the molecular by-product of metabolic reactions—that signals the presence of cancer, but many. "It's likely that we're not going to discover single predictors like glucose for diabetes, or cholesterol for heart disease," he said. "It's probably going to be a combination of small molecules that we put together in a profile."
New central metabolomics shared resource
To find these cancer-identifying profiles, Raftery and his lab are using metabolomics, a modern, high-throughput method that can detect hundreds to thousands of individual metabolites in a single experiment. Their initial work is very promising; the group identified a profile of 11 metabolites that can detect the recurrence of breast cancer one year earlier than clinical diagnosis, and up to two years earlier and more accurately than currently used biomarkers. Typically, a cancer diagnosis would be confirmed using imaging methods.
Metabolite profiles can also be useful for improving early detection, following treatment, and for stratifying patients into those that need further follow-up and those that don't.
"These kinds of early screening tests are attractive for everybody, but they also take a tremendous amount of work to establish," Raftery said. "Luckily the Hutchinson Center has a lot of expertise in this area."
Raftery's group is pursuing similar approaches to improve detection methods for liver cancer, colon cancer and esophageal cancer. He is also establishing a metabolomics profiling service within the Center's proteomics shared resource for other Center scientists interested in metabolomics research. Raftery expects to have a service up and running by this summer that will be able to detect up to 100 water soluble metabolites on an existing machine in the proteomics facility.
"Dan's commitment to providing a central metabolomics resource will benefit not only Public Health Sciences and the Center, but the larger biomedical research community in Seattle," said Dr. Johanna Lampe of PHS. "We haven't had this capacity in Seattle. For investigators in Public Health Sciences, whose studies often involve large numbers of samples, having a colleague who can provide the necessary, well-controlled pipeline to handle these numbers is exciting."
Raftery spent many years as a chemistry department faculty member at Purdue University, but as his research moved closer to clinical use, he decided he needed to be closer to hospitals, clinics and clinical researchers. Ultimately, UW and the Hutchinson Center caught his eye.
"Now I'm a bit like a kid in a candy store," he said. "There are so many clinical studies going on here where I think our methods would be applicable."