Metabolomics is the study of low molecular weight molecules or metabolites produced within cells and biological systems. It involves technologies such as mass spectrometry (MS) and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) that can measure hundreds of thousands of unique chemical entities (UCEs). The metabolome provides one of the most accurate reflections of cellular activity at the functional level and can be leveraged to discern mechanistic information during normal and disease states. The advantages of metabolomics over other “omics” include its high sensitivity and ability to enable the analysis of relatively few metabolites compared with the number of genes and messenger RNAs (mRNAs). In clinical samples, metabolites are more stable than proteins or RNA. In fact, metabolomic profiling in basic, epidemiologic, clinical, and translational studies has revealed potential new biomarkers of disease and therapeutic outcome and has led to a novel mechanistic understanding of pathogenesis. These potential biomarkers include novel metabolites associated with cancer initiation, regression, and recurrence. Unlike genomics or even proteomics, however, the degree of metabolite complexity and heterogeneity within biological systems presents unique challenges that require specialized skills and resources to overcome. This article discusses epidemiologic studies of altered metabolite profiles in several cancers as well as challenges in the field and potential approaches to overcoming them.
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