Bringing it all together

April 21, 2015
U of M expertise in the fast-growing discipline known as multi-omics is opening new avenues to our understanding of disease and fundamental biology.

The Center for Mass Spectrometry and Proteomics wants researchers to know it’s open for business. In a recent paper in Nature Biotechnology, center director and associate professor Timothy Griffin (Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics) staked out the University’s ability to gather and analyze the staggering amount of biological data that has come to be called “multi-omics.”

In the paper, Griffin and collaborators including the University’s Minnesota Supercomputing Institute, discuss the use of mass spectrometry and a flexible, high-powered software platform called Galaxy to simultaneously characterize the human genome (genomics) and the vast array of proteins that genes produce to carry out biological functions (proteomics). Their approach promises to lead to better understanding of biological processes, including diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

By simultaneously characterizing a patient’s genome and the “proteome” it produces, researchers can develop “personalized proteomics” to discover novel proteins that are expressed as a result of mutations and may be associated with disease, says Griffin.

“It’s really kind of connecting dots and giving you a more informed view,” he says. “A protein gone bad could be a target for therapy. Or it could be a biomarker of the cancer.”

For example, University pulmonologist Christine Wendt has been working under a National Institutes of Health grant to analyze lung tissue to try to understand why people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are predisposed to lung cancer. By mapping out a patients’ genome, researchers like Wendt can establish a correlation between genetics and the diseases. By also analyzing the proteins the genes produce, Wendt can begin to understand the mechanisms that actually cause COPD and lung cancer.

“The proteins are the chemicals that do all the action,” says Wendt. But Wendt, like most researchers, doesn’t have the specialized equipment and knowledge on board to do the analysis herself. “So we are working with the Mass Spectrometry Center to get the protein profiles to see if we can find differences between those who get lung cancer and those who don’t.”

Other researchers are also incorporating data on the RNA that transcribes the proteins (“transcriptomics”) and metabolic byproducts (“metabolomics”). Altogether this fast-growing field of study has come to be called multi-omics.

Cancer isn’t the only area of research. Multi-omics can delve into the workings of many kinds of biological process from medicine to food production to evolution. The center has used its expertise to support research at more than 30 departments at the University. Other clients (whose fees help support the center) include Yale, Purdue, Mayo Clinic, Cargill, Medtronic, and 3M.

The University is well-position to take a leading role in multi-omics research and analysis, says Griffin. The infrastructure of the Center for Mass Spectrometry Center and Supercomputing Institute along with expertise in specialized software is part of the reason. But it’s also the proximity to a critical mass of “people with biological research, biological questions who are going to take advantage of this and bring the right sort of high-impact cutting-edge questions to it,” says Griffin. “So I think the pieces are all here, for sure.”

– Greg Breining