All living organisms are host to small molecules responsible for our underlying chemistry. Some of these molecules are well characterized, like estrogen, a hormone responsible for reproductive regulation; or dopamine the neurotransmitter coupled to reward-motivated behavior. Some are less understood, bearing cryptic names like 6-Hydroxycyclohex-1-enecarbonyl-coenzyme A. The human body contains thousands of different small molecules – called metabolites – and it’s well known that these metabolites offer information regarding health and disease. For example, the metabolite cholesterol has long been linked to cardiovascular health, and the metabolite glucose is a key diagnostic for diabetes.
A bulk of already established screens measure metabolites from easily accessible samples like blood, urine, or saliva to answer questions about standard health or injury. However, many new panels are actively being discovered to answer new questions, using metabolites as markers. The work to uncover new metabolite markers of human health and disease is part of a growing field called metabolomics.
My research is part of an effort to identify metabolite markers in blood that are associated with radiation exposure. Understanding radiation exposure is important for patients receiving therapeutic radiation (for cancer treatment), those exposed during a radiation accident or event, and for future astronauts as they travel deeper into space and away from our protective atmosphere. We need a fast and reliable measure of radiation dose in the likely event that a patient is unaware of how much radiation they received. With a quick analysis, using metabolites, we hope to monitor and appropriately treat patients (even the ones in space) based on their metabolite levels. This is just one of many problems we can solve using the information from metabolomics – and I find it radiant!