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The Next Frontier in ‘Omics: The Metabolome

An emerging but powerful tool for precision medicine

‘Omics is a catch-all term for science ending in… you guessed it ‘-omics’. The most well-known being ‘genomics’. The genomics era began in 2003 with the completion of the Human Genome Project, a high-profile $2.7bn dollar, 13-year project mapping out the DNA ‘blueprint’ for a human being.

In part due to various technological advancements and arguably in part due to the limitations of genomics, DNA’s younger sister, metabolomics, has entered the spotlight, spurring the metabolomics era.

Rather than the human genome being the master plan that controls and predicts the entire organism, it turns out that there is a more complex relationship between the genome, the genetic blueprint, and the characteristics it encodes — the phenotype — than originally thought. This is in part because of the confounding effect of environmental factors.

To put it simply, if the genome is the architectural drawing, then the metabolome is the picture of the house once it’s been built. The photo of the house is impacted by the materials used (environmental factors), mistakes made in construction (diseases) and the builders (how DNA is used by the body — other ‘omics).

Metabolomics is the analysis of metabolites - the byproduct of reactions in the body. It offers a closer measure of how the body is working, phenotype, than other ‘omics approaches (e.g transcriptome or proteome). This is because the metabolome is the byproduct of both the genome and environmental factors such as nutrients, stress, or disease. This makes metabolomics an attractive approach for multiple fields: environmental toxicology, disease diagnosis and treatment response, and the development of drugs.

While the metabolome was first described many years ago recent technological advancements have reinvigorated this field of study. Specifically, there have been advances in techniques used for metabolomics such as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry (LC-MS) and a growing number of open datasets for metabolomic research which is vital to new research.

The ever-expanding field of metabolomics has also been enabled by cloud computing and domain-specific infrastructure-as-a-service providers.

Direct-to-consumer healthcare is booming as consumers want to take control of their health, demand a greater standard of care and seek earlier disease detection and prevention. This has created a huge market opportunity. Alongside this precision medicine is set to profoundly impact the future of healthcare. The metabolome is an emerging but powerful tool in the journey to individualised care

While the potential use cases for metabolomics are wide and far-reaching, the tantalising question is when could metabolomics be delivered to the masses?

Many metabolomics studies are focused on finding biomarkers for early diagnosis or monitoring of diseases. These include some of the biggest killers such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Read other studies here.

Currently, the processes to screen the metabolome are too slow and expensive to conduct on numbers greater than 10,000 which limits its use as a screening tool.

However once a series of biomarkers have been discovered and validated the scenario is different, the known molecule can be tested for using more commercially viable methods, such as:

Lateral flow assays (LFAs) are simple to use, disposable diagnostic devices that can test for biomarkers in samples such as saliva, blood, urine, and food.
  • Lateral flow devices — similar to a pregnancy test
  • Dipstick test — similar to a urine test
  • Breath measurements — for example, alcohol breath test
  • Electrochemical detection — such as recent constant glucose monitoring patches

Looking further into the future we may see the commercialisation of lab-on-chip devices that offer point-of-care or at-home testing for the metabolome and offer a unique insight into our biology.

These approaches require overcoming regulatory hurdles. A nearer-term and less regulatory complex startup opportunity may lie in the development of precision nutrition programmes aided by metabolomic research.

If you’re working on a business in this area or near-to-it, please get in touch with us here.



Nanotrends documents the startup opportunities that are emerging out of changes in consumer behaviour, technology, markets and climate. Curated by investors at Forward Partners.

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Louise Rix

Founder, previously Chief Medical Officer at Béa Fertility, VC investor, founder. Interested in health care, female health and startups.