Mastering Metabolomics: An Interview with Andrew Patterson


Writer Sara LaJeunesse talks with Andrew Patterson, assistant professor of molecular toxicology and director of Penn State’s Metabolomics Core Facility, about his research on metabolism. Andrew earned a bachelor’s degree in microbiology from Penn State in 1999 and a Ph.D. in genetics from the joint graduate partnerships program with the National Institutes of Health and George Washington University in 2006. He conducted postdoctoral research in the Lab of Metabolism with Dr. Frank Gonzalez at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland. In 2011, Andrew joined the faculty of the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State.




Sara: What is metabolomics and how do you use it in your research?

Andrew: I’m interested in how our bodies metabolize things like drugs and foreign compounds, and also how chemicals in our diets or nutrients derived from our diets influence health and disease. Metabolomics is the process of identifying chemical fingerprints in biofluids, such as blood and urine, that are left behind after metabolic processes are carried out. Here at Penn State and thanks to generous support from the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, we use very sensitive mass spectrometry-based platforms to measure changes in these chemicals, both qualitatively and quantitatively. For example, we have been able to tell from the urinary metabolome whether certain drugs are working or not, if they are toxic, and how well these findings in animal models translate to humans. We’ve also spent considerable effort developing noninvasive urinary biomarkers for detecting exposure to ionizing radiation—think scenarios where we’d need to rapidly screen and triage thousands of people to determine their exposed dose. Right now we’re working on cancer biomarkers and using this information to understand some of the mechanistic underpinnings behind cancer’s pathogenesis and progression. The field of metabolomics is truly providing a new and interesting perspective from which to look at health and disease.

Sara: What are some possible applications of your work?

Andrew: The applications of metabolomics are endless. Since we can measure a lot of chemicals relatively noninvasively in easy-to-obtain biofluids, metabolomics has garnered a lot of excitement from the medical community. Currently, metabolomics is being used to identify very early indicators of diseases such as cancer. The hope is that eventually we can use metabolomics to predict disease formation or monitor its progression. While my lab spends a lot of time looking at metabolism in rodents and humans, there have been fascinating studies focusing on plants, and there’s plenty of application to the agricultural community for things like monitoring milk production in cows or understanding what chemicals are responsible for giving wine grapes their characteristic flavor and texture. One of the most rewarding aspects of metabolomics is the potential to collaborate with scientists across many disciplines.

Sara: Finish this sentence: “I would be extremely excited if . . . ”

Andrew: . . . we could use the urinary or blood metabolome to predict how a person would respond to a drug. We’re exposed to countless chemicals; some estimates put it at one to three million discrete exposures in a lifetime. These chemicals come from food, drugs, cosmetics, pollutants, and pesticides, and our body does an incredible job of metabolizing and, in some cases, detoxifying them. It’s conceivable that we could use metabolomic information based solely on the chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis to give some clues about how we might respond to a drug we’ve never taken before. This all falls within the scope of personalized medicine, which once was a bit of a fairy tale but with metabolomics is now closer than ever to becoming reality.