Using Metabolomics to Find a SARS-CoV-2 Biomarker

Posted on June 04, 2020


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The Director-General of the World Health Organization, Tedros Ghebreyesus, said that testing is the best way to combat COVID-19—but the thing is, before you can test, you have to have a marker (a biomarker) that indicates if a person is sick or not. Keep reading to learn about the important role metabolomics is playing in COVID-19 research.

Metabolomics in COVID-19 Research

Researchers are utilizing -omics technologies in order to develop biomarker tests, to understand the biology of the coronavirus, and to provide important insight into our immune response to infection. The goal of metabolomics is to measure all the metabolites, and other small molecules, in a sample. It’s being used to survey the blood, urine, feces, and saliva to identify chemical biomarkers of COVID-19—and to understand the disease better.

Mass spectrometry is a central technology used to perform metabolomics. Mass spectrometers are commonly used in clinical diagnostics, which means if you’ve ever had a blood test, you’ve most likely had a mass spectrometry test.

So, what are mass spectrometers? To put it simply, they’re scales that measure the mass of a chemical to the fourth or fifth decimal place. Mass spectrometry-based metabolomics has the power to provide information about what chemicals are present in a given sample, as well as how much of those chemicals are present.

The Challenges

One challenge presented by metabolomics data is that it’s often data rich, but information poor. A mass spectrometer can detect a very vast amount of chemical information—but that means a researcher is left with an overwhelming amount of data. A single study can generate gigabytes of data, but at the same time, most of the mass spectrometry “peaks” that are detected are unidentified.

Researchers have developed, and continue to develop more accurate data analysis tools to help combat this shortcoming in information. In spite of these challenges, there’s a lot of potential for understanding COVID-19 infections and finding diagnostic biomarkers.

Peer-reviewed literature might still be scarce, but new preprints (not peer-reviewed) are emerging every day. We know very little about COVID-19 in the grand scheme of things—more data and validation are required. But the world’s researchers are putting as much of their expertise as they can toward these goals.

The Dorrestein lab at UCSD, for example, has launched an effort to compile, and make public, the metabolomics data associated with SARS-CoV-2 to facilitate collaboration with researchers from around the world—including the COVID-19 Mass Spectrometry Coalition, with more than 220 scientists from 18 different countries.

There is immense potential for metabolomics in diagnostic and prognostic testing of COVID-19 that is complementary to the ongoing global efforts to develop nucleic acid and antigen testing. For more of the latest industry news, visit our News page. To read the original article for more information, click here.