Dr Karsten Suhre, professor of physiology and biophysics, and director of the Bioinformatics Core at Weill Cornell Medicine – Qatar (WCM-Q), led a team of researchers from across the globe, to better understand how human cells respond to disease, using comprehensive molecular measurement techniques. 

Dr Karsten Suhre

The study showed how individual differences in lifestyles and health leave an imprint on a person’s epigenome – a series of chemical modifications to a person’s genome that has the ability to switch genes ‘on’ or ‘off’. The research also covered how disorders like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease, in conjunction with exposure to environmental factors like smoking and lack of exercise, affect the biochemical make-up of small molecules and proteins as they circulate within the human body.

According to Dr Suhre, complex disorders, including extreme obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, as well as lifestyle choices, force our body to respond by eliminating toxic molecules from the body.

This response leaves epigenetic marks on the genome which tell the cells which genes they need to activate. Epigenetic marks are like little flags – their presence or absence at specific locations on the genome can tell how well a cell is faring in response to a health challenge. For instance, some of them can serve as early indicators for the onset of diabetes.’

Their study was titled ‘Deep Molecular Phenotypes Link Complex Disorders and Physiological Insult to CpG Methylation’ and is the first study that analyses such a broad spectrum of molecular measurements, including metabolomics, lipidomics, proteomics and glycomics, to measure all kinds of small molecules that can be found in blood, urine and saliva. This study has now been published in the international journal Human Molecular Genetics, accessible through this link.

Dr Shaza Zaghlool, the first author of the study who performed all the data analyses, explained that looking at some of the markers identified in the study may buy them some time for an intervention.

Knowing that certain factors are associated with each other is only a first step in dealing with the problem. Understanding which of these factors are actually driving the disease will allow us to pinpoint specific molecules that we can target with drugs. This is what we started to do. It’s about an integrated approach to developing new therapies.’

Dr Khaled Machaca, associate dean for research at WCM-Q, said that the biomarkers could help with the early diagnosis of certain cancers, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease, and may one day allow doctors to begin therapies earlier, ultimately improving clinical outcomes. The biomarkers could also allow patients to make timely lifestyle changes, and perhaps avoid the disease altogether.

For more information about WCM-Q and the various research studies they support, visit their website at qatar-weill.cornell.edu.