Scientists in Alberta say they are the first team to finish a draft of the chemical equivalent of the human genome, paving the way for faster, cheaper diagnoses of disease.
The researchers on Wednesday said the Human Metabolome Project, led by the University of Alberta, has listed and described some 2,500 chemicals found in or made by the body (three times as many as expected), and double that number of substances stemming from drugs and food. The chemicals, known as metabolites, represent the ingredients of life just as the human genome represents the blueprint of life.
The results of the $7.5-million project, which began in 2004 and involved 53 scientists, is expected to give doctors and researchers a new way to identify and diagnose diseases: by examining the chemical composition of the human body.
"Metabolites are the canaries of the genome," project leader David Wishart, a professor of computing and biology at the University of Alberta, said in a written statement. He explained that one base change in human DNA — the building block of life — can trigger a change in metabolite levels by a factor of some 100,000.
Less than one per cent of metabolites are measured in clinical tests such as blood and urine analyses, leaving medical professionals without a comprehensive picture of patients' health, according to Wishart. The new research has catalogued some 95 per cent of known metabolites in the human metabolome, which can be used to quickly and cheaply make diagnoses.
"By decoding the human metabolome, we can identify and diagnose hundreds of diseases in a matter of seconds at a cost of pennies," Wishart said.
"The results of this research will have a significant impact on the diagnosis, prediction, prevention and monitoring of many genetic, infectious and environmental diseases," said Martin Godbout, the president and CEO of Genome Alberta, the province's genomics resource centre.
A range of factors, including what people eat, where they live, the time of day or year and even mood and general health, can affect the metabolome.
The project is a joint effort of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, the University of Calgary, Genome Canada, Industry Canada, and the Alberta government.
Funding for the research came from Genome Canada through Genome Alberta, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning, and the University of Alberta.