August 19, 2019

Riding toward the future of precision medicine

Madison, Wis. — Whether visiting the clinic as part of their preventative care plan or seeking medical attention to address a specific concern, many patients end up giving their healthcare team a sample - be it blood, urine, or tissue - to run the laboratory tests that provide a snapshot of their health status. Now researchers are looking for new methods to improve upon precision medicine.

UW Carbone Cancer Center member Josh Coon, PhD, a professor of chemistry and biomolecular chemistry, uses a technique called mass spectrometry to detect what types compounds are present in biological samples and in roughly what quantities. These sorts of measurements help researchers understand how differences at the molecular level affect larger cellular and biological change, and the driving force behind his lab’s research is developing technology that addresses current limitations to making molecular measurements.

“We’re really interested in making those measurements better,” Coon says. “How do we build mass spectrometers that can make better measurements or different measurements or faster measurements?”

In addition to applying their methods in various biological settings through collaborations with many scientists around the world and on the UW campus, including UW Carbone Cancer Center member Mark Burkard, MD, PhD, Coon’s group has recently been developing technology that allows for a more detailed look at human health by analyzing urine.

The Ride: Sept. 22

The Ride is a cycling fundraising event that supports research at the UW Carbone Cancer Center. You can join the event in-person or ride virtually. Learn more

As far as biological samples go, urine offers researchers like Coon a wealth of information. Made in the kidneys as the product of the toxins, wastes, and extra fluid filtered from the blood, urine contains thousands of small molecules called metabolites that created in the body from cellular processes. Lots of these metabolites have been identified and categorized, with many showing associations with a host of conditions, including inflammatory diseases and cancer.  While those links between metabolites and human health are not yet conclusive, Coon believes that making these sorts of measurements in large enough populations could firmly establish these connections and their diagnostic capability.

“If you want to understand what’s going on in a system, you need to understand what proteins are there. You need to understand what metabolites are there,” Coon says. “If you do that, you can get a better sense of the underlying biochemistry.”

In their preliminary findings, Coon’s group found that by analyzing every urine sample two participants made over the course of ten days, they could track individual daily fluctuations in the amounts of the metabolites present. At this level of detail, they could distinguish which individual gave that sample just by looking at the metabolites. Analyzing this type of data over time also helped them see different groups of metabolites with levels that consistently tracked with lifestyle behaviors like alcohol consumption, physical activity, sleep, and coffee consumption. These comprehensive measurements could help physicians spot early changes to an individual’s health status.

With funding from The Ride, Coon’s research group hopes to improve upon the technology. For example, chemistry graduate student Ben Anderson is working on methods to improve the sensitivity of the measurements and is already able to detect more metabolites than described in the initial study. While this project is still in its early stages, more validation with a slightly larger group of participants across a longer time period would give the team the confidence to start developing a device that could make these sorts of measurements more remotely - rather than necessitating more frequent visits to the clinic.

“If one could monitor urine samples every day on an individual over years, then the idea is that you could potentially correlate that with all of these diseases and particularly with cancer,” Coon says. “This would be personalized medicine but based on real molecular measurements that could be done in the home environment.”