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‘Power shift’ needed to improve gender balance in energy research, report says

‘Power shift’ needed to improve gender balance in energy research, report says

“Power shift” needed to improve gender balance in energy research, report says

Women still face significant barriers in forging successful and influential careers in UK energy research, a new high-level report has revealed.

A team of experts from the University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group has analysed gender balance within the crucial field of energy research and spoken to female researchers about their experiences of academic life. The study, launched today (14th June 2019), sets out how research funders and universities can ensure female talent and expertise is mobilised in transforming our energy systems.

The report is particularly timely as the UK parliament declares a climate emergency and the government commits to legislate for a 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target. It is clear that energy research needs to harness 100 per cent of available talent in order to meet the challenge of rapidly decarbonising energy systems.

The study revealed that women are still significantly under-represented in energy research and application rates from women are low. It also found that grants applied for and awarded to women tend to be of smaller value, when they do apply female academics are equally and sometimes more likely to be funded than male academics.

The report also highlighted the ‘significant drop-off’ between the number of female PhD students and funded researchers – meaning the sector loses a substantial pool of potential talent at an early stage.

The research presents four key ways in which funders and universities can work together to improve gender balance: look at the data, fund more women, stimulate career progression for female energy academics, and build on what’s already working.

Jess Britton, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and co-author of the report said: “Progress on gender balance in research has been too slow for too long, but we think now is the time to bring together action across funders and universities to ensure that female talent in capitalised on. Taking action across the funding, institutional and systemic issues we identify could drive a real shift in inclusion in the sector”.

The new report, commissioned by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) saw the researchers speak to 59 female academics conducting energy research and from various disciplines, institutions and career stages. They also analysed available data on gender and energy research funding.

Crucially, interviews with the researchers unearthed an array of issues that were felt to be holding women back from career progression – including the detrimental impact of part-time work or maternity leave, and inherent institutional and funding bias towards established, male academics.

While the report recognised that since 2017 there has been some progress in the gender balance of Peer Review Panel Members and small increases in awards granted to female researchers, progress has remained slow.

The study suggests that any progress should be accompanied by systemic change within the institutional structures and cultural environment of institutions involved with energy research.

Jim Watson, Director of UKERC added: “This report shows that there is an urgent need to address the poor gender balance within the UK energy research community – particularly with respect to leadership of grants and career progression.

“It not only reveals the extent of the problem with new evidence, but makes a series of practical recommendations should be required reading for funders and universities alike.”

The research identified four key ways in which UKRI, other funders and universities can work to improve gender balance. They are:

Look at the data – There remain significant difficulties in accessing meaningful data on gender balance in energy research. Data should be published, used to set targets, monitor progress and provide annual updates. The report also suggested using quantitative and qualitative data to identify key intervention points, speaking to more female energy academics to identify biases and barriers, and continuing to improve gender balance in funding review processes.

Fund more women – the report identified that funding structures can be a barrier, and that both part-time working and career breaks are perceived to slow progress. It suggests that the assessment of part-time working and maternity leave needs to be standardised across funder eligibility criteria and in the review process. It also identified that a lack of diversity of funding types impacts on women, and suggested trialling innovative approaches to allocating funding and supporting early career researchers.

Stimulate career progression for female energy academics – The report highlighted the need to acknowledge and take action on the individualistic, long hours culture of academia and also overhaul existing institutional structures and cultures. Early career stages are often characterised by precarious fixed-term contracts and over reliance on quantitative measures of progress. It also recommended building suitable training, mentoring and support networks to help more women progress and ensure the visibility of female researchers.

Build on what is working – The study recommended identifying key points of engagement to build gender balance: combine specific targeted actions, such as UKRI and university frameworks and targeted funding initiatives, with long-term action on structural issues that promote cultural change in our institutions. It also identified the need to ensure equality of voice – so that female academic voices are heard.

Alison Wall, Deputy Director for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at EPSRC said: “We welcome this report, its findings and recommendations. Many of the issues raised are ones we recognise more widely in our research community.

“Enhancing diversity and inclusion is one of the priorities in our new Delivery Plan. For example, we plan to make further progress on embedding EDI into the grant application process, developing our peer review processes, provision of further data and increased flexibility in our funding.”

A copy of the report and the full list of recommendations can be found here:


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Duncan Sandes

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High tunnels for specialty crops: The hope and the hinderance

High tunnels for specialty crops: The hope and the hinderance


Study gains a better understanding, from the perspective of farmers, of the challenges and advantageous opportunities associated with using high tunnels for specialty crops


Credit: Full Hand Farm

A study out of Indiana and Purdue Universities sought to gain a better understanding, from the perspective of farmers, of the challenges and advantageous opportunities associated with using high tunnels for specialty crops in Indiana.

Analena Bruce (Indiana University), Elizabeth Maynard (Purdue University), and James Farmer (Indiana University) researched the application of this season-expanding growing technique in order to provide an in-depth understanding of farm-level challenges associated with high tunnel adoption and usage. Their results are detailed in the article, “Farmers’ Perspectives on Challenges and Opportunities Associated with Using High Tunnels for Specialty Crops,” published in HortTechnology.

High tunnels are essentially unheated greenhouses that can help farmers extend the growing season so that they can improve profitability and productivity of their farms. They provide protection from extreme weather such as high winds, heavy rain, hail, snow and drought.

Unlike greenhouses, high tunnels are simple structures over bare ground and its natural soil. They function without elaborate heating or cooling systems and are generally basic frames set into the ground and covered with one or two layers of greenhouse-grade plastic.

High tunnels are an increasingly popular part of the infrastructure among small and diversified farms that market their products directly to consumers. In addition to extending the growing season, research has strongly indicated that high tunnels can increase yield, enhance shelf life, and improve the quality of crops grown.

Initial observations into the use of high tunnels revealed that the additional labor and time requirements of high tunnel production, the increased complexity of transforming farming habits to high tunnel usage, soil fertility and management considerations, disease management, and limited winter markets all comprise the greatest challenges facing farmers adopting this technique.

The ability to differentiate their products based on higher quality and longer shelf life, the ability to obtain a premium price, the ability to maintain a source of income during the off-season, and the ability to produce complementary crops have been revealed as the most attractive advantageous opportunities for using high tunnels in farming.

The global production of specialty crops, such as high-value vegetables, has been transformed by the use of high tunnels to temper the effects of extreme weather events and climate conditions, and allow for extended growing seasons.

This study presents findings from qualitative research that was designed as a follow-up to a survey of farmers using high tunnels across Indiana. A qualitative approach was ideal for this study because it provided a richer picture of farmers’ experiences with high tunnels and a better understanding of the specific challenges and opportunities alluded to earlier.

One of the more commonly mentioned challenges described by participating farmers was the added difficulty with keeping up with the time and labor required to manage their high tunnels. The researchers determined that one reason why high tunnel crops are more labor-intensive for farmers is because high tunnel planting and harvesting schedules are substantially different from what farmers are familiar with and require schedules that are separate from those of their vegetable crops growing in the uncovered portions of their fields.

The article showcases in-depth interviews for this effort that allow for the reporting of specific examples that illustrate the experiences of farmers with high tunnels. These specific examples prove to be very valuable for developing an understanding of the issues and how they can be addressed in the best way. Furthermore, these examples combined with the results of surveys and quantitative research will enable more rapid improvements in high tunnel production systems through research, improvements in technology, and education.


The complete article is available on the ASHS HortTechnology electronic journal web site: DOI: . Or you may contact Analena Bruce of Indiana University at or call her at (412) 716-5040.

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticulture research, education, and application. More information at

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Michael Neff

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Snack peppers find acceptance with reduced seed count

Snack peppers find acceptance with reduced seed count


Study investigates the desirability for, and practicality of, producing snack peppers, both sweet and hot, with low seed count


Credit: John Stommel

John Stommel of the Agricultural Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA-ARS) has investigated the desirability for, and practicality of, producing snack peppers, both sweet and hot, with low seed count.

His findings are in the article, “Reduced Seed Count Improves Versatility and Propagation of Small-fruited Peppers (Capsicum annuum L.) for Specialty Markets,” published in HortScience.

Small/miniature sweet and hot peppers, such as snack peppers, are a rapidly growing class of specialty peppers. As with grapes and watermelons and certain other fruits, low seed count is an important attribute for consumer acceptance of small-fruited specialty peppers. But, this attribute is understandably counterproductive in terms of maintaining a strong continuous yield.

Environmental stress conditions, including high or low temperature, humidity, high or low light intensity, heavy rain or drought, and even strong wind, negatively affect the quality of fruit and growth. These conditions can also induce fruit to be seedless or with significantly reduced seed.

This is known as parthenocarpy, the development of a fruit without prior fertilization. In parthenocarpy, the ovary is stimulated even without pollination and thus fruit development begins without fertilization. Some of this occurs naturally, as with bananas, pineapples, and persimmons, to name but a few. Other examples are a result of thoughtful intervention.

Induction of parthenocarpy is a common agricultural practice for some horticultural crops. Selective breeding for parthenocarpy has demonstrated the utility of seedlessness for improved yield and quality in selected environments.

Small sweet peppers are popular among consumers because of their versatility, snackability, vibrant colors, and nutrition attributes. Mature peppers comprise the majority of the snack pepper market segment due to enhanced sweetness and the aroma of ripe fruit.

Although characteristically pungent, no-heat habanero cultivars within the snack market class provide unique fruity and floral attributes of the habanero without fruit pungency.

Seasonal field production is supplemented by year-round greenhouse production. Although field production of traditional pepper commodities is in decline in parts of the country, other segments, including snack peppers, are expanding greenhouse acreage for high-value pepper production.

A relatively small number of commercial snack pepper cultivars have been developed, many of which lack uniformity and quality attributes such as low seed count, which enhances culinary convenience for product end users.

True breeding pepper lines selected for reduced fruit seed count exhibited significantly reduced seed count relative to breeding lines with seed set typical for pepper.


The complete article is available in the ASHS HortScience journal: DOI: Or you may contact John Stommel of the US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service at, or call him at (301) 504-5583.

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticulture Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticulture research, education, and application. More information at

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Michael Neff

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Controlling temperatures for inexpensive plant experiments

Controlling temperatures for inexpensive plant experiments

Newly available plug-and-play temperature controllers allow conversion of a standard chest freezer into a controlled-environment chamber in minutes, with no custom modification

A study out of Clemson University has demonstrated that inexpensive, easy-to-use temperature controllers are able to provide reliable set temperatures for the detailed observation of developmental rates in response to different temperature treatments.

Researchers Douglas Bielenberg and Ksenija Gasic engaged a methodical examination of the practical applications of these temperature control devises on cut stems, buds, and seeds.

The results of their study are detailed in the article, “Controlled-temperature Treatments with Low-cost Off-the-shelf Equipment for Bud or Seed Forcing Experiments,” published in HortScience.

Inexpensive plug-and-play temperature controllers have recently become available. These allow a chest freezer to be programmed easily to hold a desired set point across a range of biologically relevant temperatures. Installation can be completed in a few minutes using consumer-grade chest freezers.

Characterizing the regulation of plant and seed development by temperature requires controlled exposure of replicate plants (whole or in part) to multiple temperature environments simultaneously. Experiments with seeds or other small plant segments can be performed on a thermal gradient table, which can generate many temperatures at once.

However, experiments involving larger plant parts, such as cut stems, require temperature control of a larger three-dimensional volume, such as an environmental chamber. Inexpensive access to the number of environmental chambers required for this sort of scientific observation is not easily available and can therefore limit the scope of experiments.

However, newly available plug-and-play temperature controllers allow conversion of a standard chest freezer into a controlled-environment chamber in minutes, with no custom modification.

To test the equipment, the researchers subjected an array of identical plant types and seeds to a variety of precise temperatures within an array of identical box freezers (chambers). They tested each chamber’s temperature controller, recording internal temperatures at 10-minute intervals, to ensure the integrity of the equipment and the consistency of its output to maintain an exact and controlled environment during a 48-hour period, during which the chambers were not opened.

The effectiveness of the chambers on the effects of temperature on developmental rates was assessed with two biological assays: budbreak progress of peach floral buds warm-forced at different temperatures, and sunflower seed germination. Both budbreak and germination showed a clear temperature-dependent effect on development, with each decrease in temperature slowing development form the previous temperatures.

Understanding the minimum temperature for development is an important realm of knowledge for modeling plant phenology. The relationship between development rate and suboptimal temperatures can be used easily to calculate an estimated base temperature for optimal growth.

These newer inexpensive temperature-controllers will allow horticulturists, agronomists, foresters, and educators to design and perform experiments when multiple controlled-temperature environments are required without access to specialized facilities or skills. Off-the-shelf, easy-to-use components offer the potential to expand greatly the community of researchers who are able to incorporate temperature physiology into their investigations of plant development and phenology, particularly workers outside of traditional research institutions.


The complete article is available in the ASHS HortScience journal: DOI: Or you may contact Douglas Bielenberg of Clemson University at or call him at (864) 656-2328.

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticulture research, education, and application. More information at

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Michael Neff

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What it takes for green businesses to advertise online

What it takes for green businesses to advertise online

National survey analyses adoption of online marketing strategies

The green industry in the United States is comprised of production and wholesale nurseries and wholesale/retail distribution centers, as well as related marketing interests. While the green industry traditionally has been among the fastest growing business sectors in the U.S. national economy, recently some of its segments have become stagnant or have declined in economic health.

There is substantial evidence that marketing efforts, in all business sectors, deter the decline to a significant extent, and online advertising is viewed as another dimension for businesses trying to reach more potential customers for a low to moderate investment.

Technology-based marketing has become a much more advantageous avenue for products and services to reach customers–not bound to their area, state, region, or even to their country.

Even with overwhelming amount of anecdotal benefits within view, not every business makes the jump into the realm of social media and other forms of online advertising.

Researchers Ariana Torres, Susan Barton, and Bridget Behe initiated a study from a national survey of plant producers and retailers to investigate the business and managerial characteristics that influence the decision to adopt online strategies among green industry firms.

The results of this investigation are published in the article “Evaluating the Business and Owner Characteristics Influencing the Adoption of Online Advertising Strategies in the Green Industry” as found in the open-access journal HortTechnology, published by The American Society for Horticultural Science.

The internet has facilitated the growth of online advertising over the past decade, and online advertising has moved from being a peripheral to a central advertising medium because of its unique targeting capabilities. Yet, green industry firms struggle to integrate online advertising into their existing advertising strategy.

To many running green-related businesses, there is some reluctance in stepping forward into communicating with potential customers through computer-oriented or technology-based business models. More than 70% of US farms have internet access, but less than 50% of them use the internet for farm business. Acquiring a computer is the first step to modernizing the advertising strategy.

Torres further states, “Online advertising seems to help green industry business to overcome geographical isolation by drawing customers from wider geographic range. This is especially true for smaller firms and firms selling directly to customers.”

To delve into the characteristics of green industry business owners who advance their businesses with the use of online advertising, the researchers considered two factors: 1) those influencing investing in online advertising at all, and 2) those influencing the amount invested in online advertising. The researchers were interested in understanding how managerial decisions regarding market diversification may affect online advertising adoption.

Businesses in markets facing maturity have seen the return on investment that advertising can bring, and green industry firms are no exception. Although most promotion and advertising is effective for green industry businesses, online advertising seems to have the most impact businesses with smaller sales, but most business owners perceived that online marketing efforts were either somewhat or very successful.

Torres adds, “While smaller businesses tend to be more reluctant to engage in online advertising–maybe due to the lack of marketing resources and technology knowledge– once they invest in it, they dedicate a larger percentage of advertising to online methods than do larger businesses. This finding suggests the need for education programs that help green industry businesses integrate online advertising to daily operations to break the initial barrier of adopting this type of marketing.”

The findings in this article can help any green industry business, or any other type of business for that matter, understand the two-step nature of the decision to invest in online advertising: 1) whether to take that step at all, and 2) how much to invest.


The complete article is available on the ASHS HortTechnology electronic journal web site: DOI: Or you may contact Ariana Torres of Purdue University at or call her at (765) 430-7585.

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticulture research, education, and application. More information at

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Michael Neff

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Not If. When: Metabolomics’ Impact in Cancer Treatments May Be Just around the Corner

Not If. When: Metabolomics’ Impact in Cancer Treatments May Be Just around the Corner

The possibility of metabolomics playing a role in cancer diagnostics and treatment seems, to many metabolomicists, a question of when rather than if. After all, metabolomics is a powerful platform to measure the endpoint of human physiology—a direct readout of physiological changes—and is easily sampled in blood. Despite its usefulness, there are multiple hurdles on its path to clinical application for oncology. But, as more people realize the doors that metabolomics can open for cancer research and treatment applications, getting over those hurdles seems more manageable than ever.

Metabolomics is loosely (and insufficiently) defined as the study of metabolism. However, Shankar Subramaniam Ph.D., chair and professor of bioengineering at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, told Clinical OMICs that there are many, expansive questions in the field. Some researchers are interested in identifying markers in the blood that are indicative of various tumors—using metabolites as yardsticks for cancer. For example, the increase of proline, threonine, aspartic acid, betaine, and dimethyl glycine in serum of patients with colorectal tumors. Or, the increase of linoleic acid and choline in lung cancer. Caveats abound, however, as many markers are late markers and they are more correlative than causal.

A mechanistic origin of altered metabolism in tumors is also an area of interest. Most tumors are in a hypoxic environment and the cells need to find alternate sources of non-oxygen driven metabolism. If the mechanistic origins of altered metabolism in cancer can be understood, alleviating the growth and progression of tumors as well as discovering therapeutic strategies could be possible. Also, drug metabolism could lead to improvements in the metabolism of that particular drug and combinatorial therapy.

In order to understand metabolomics in cancer, Subramaniam explained, we have to start at the Warberg effect. The Warberg effect describes that cancer cells favor glycolysis rather than the oxidative phosphorylation—the ATP production method utilized by the other cells in the body. This discovery, described in 1927 in the Journal of General Physiology for which Otto Warberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1931, has been a topic of discussion for decades, according to Subramamiam. And, the research surrounding this metabolic phenomenon has increased in the last twenty years as people have started to question the altered metabolism illustrated by cancer cells. Now, almost a century later, the field is moving with breakneck speed. Oliver Fiehn, Ph.D., professor at the University of California, Davis, and director of the

West Coast Metabolomics Center, noted that “it is great that metabolism is recognized as a hallmark of cancer and that researchers and clinicians embrace this idea from finding cures to other interventions.”

The poster child

The promise held by metabolomics to advance cancer treatment is perhaps best illustrated by the seminal 2009 Nature paper illustrating a causal association between genetics, metabolism, and cancer. The collaborative paper, “Cancer-associated IDH1 mutations produce 2-hydroxyglutarate” showed that mutations in the isocitrate dehydrogenase 1 (IDH1) gene lead to production of an oncometabolite, 2-hydroxyglutarate (2HG). The excessive 2HG accumulates, contributing to the formation and malignant progression of gliomas. Many of the authors on the landmark paper were from Agios Pharmaceuticals, a company that has turned this metabolomic discovery into a druggable target.

With two drugs having been granted FDA approval, TIBSOVO (Ivosidenib) and IDHIFA (Enasidenib), Agios is successfully bringing metabolomics and cancer from the bench to bedside. IDHIFA was FDA approved in August, 2017 for patients with relapsed or refractory acute myeloid leukemia (AML) who have IDH2 mutations and TIBSOVO was granted FDA approval in July 2018 for patients with relapsed or refractory acute myeloid leukemia with an IDH1 genetic mutation.

Metabolomics was the key to finding how the genomic alteration changed the cancer, noted Andreas Huhmer, Ph.D., senior director, proteomics and metabolomics at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He adds that because metabolomics is “very actionable” it allows the study of how organisms react to change which is more difficult to study using only genomics.

Building the foundation

A disease state recognized by deviations from the healthy state can only be recognized when the normal profile is established. “It is only then that deviations become meaningful,” noted Subramaniam. Therefore, baselines must be established—perhaps the creation of a Human Reference Metabolome, of sorts.

But, it takes a lot more to organize a metabolomic database than a genomic one. “There are 23,000 genes, but there could be millions of metabolites” noted Teresa Fan, Ph.D., professor at the University of Kentucky Markey Cancer Center. Although a reference metabalome may not be possible due to its vast complexity, building large databases of metabolomes is work that is at the heart of metabolomics today. Nightingale Health in Helsinki, Finland and UK Biobank announced plans in the summer of 2018 to analyze metabolic biomarkers in 500,000 blood samples. The work, which is funded by Nightingale and uses its biomarker profiling technology, will be incorporated into UK Biobank’s public database— after a nine-month period during which Nightingale has exclusive access.

Subramaniam heads up an NIH-funded project known as the Metabolomics Workbench—creating a public, interactive repository for metabolomics metadata and experimental data “spanning various species and experimental platforms, metabolite standards, metabolite structures, protocols, tutorials, and training material and other educational resources.” Just last fall, the University of California San Diego received a $12-million, four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to expand the workbench.

Other databases are being built, including the Genome Canada-funded Human Metabolome Database (HMDB)—a comprehensive, openly accessible, online database of human small molecule metabolites—created by the Human Metabolome Project. In addition, the Biological Magnetic Resonance Data Bank (BMRD) collects, annotates, archives, and disseminates spectral and quantitative data derived from NMR spectroscopic investigations of biological macromolecules and metabolites.

Although the focus of these large resources is not cancer, specifically, the growth of information will undoubtedly have far reaching effects on the field as a whole. And, because metabolomics reaches deep into the nooks and crannies of all human physiology, gains in cancer metabolomics are sure to follow.

“Contract research organizations (CROs) that conduct metabolomics (such as Metabolon) have improved over the past decade” said Chen Dai, Ph.D., a recently defended graduate student in Laurie Littlepage’s lab at University of Notre Dame. Now, continued Dai, “we have a much more complete understanding of metabolism as a system, and much better databases with the spectra of thousands of metabolites, which allows for identification of more metabolites than ever before. Such advances in the tools has brought great discoveries, one of which is the discovery of oncometabolites.”

It is not only the detection of metabolites that is important, but the tools that allow for the analysis of huge datasets which should facilitate the systematic study of metabolism. “Metabolism is notoriously complicated, and that complexity creates problems in research as altering one component can have unforeseen effects across many other pathways, which is really difficult to analyze” noted Dai. He adds that new tools “allow for the integration of metabolomics data with proteomics and transcriptomics data, presenting a systematic picture of the interactions and changes.”

In addition, Andrew Lane, Ph.D., professor at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, asserts that using the metabolomics approach for the purpose of diagnosis, but also prognosis and monitoring response to intervention, “relies very heavily on statistical analysis.” He added that effect sizes are frequently quite small when looking for a few metabolites out of thousands in blood, which has been in contact with every part of the organism. Although numerous claims for high-accuracy biomarkers have been made, noted Lane, to date none of them have been shown to be robust.

“Engaging scientists from multiple disciplines, including from biostatistics, computational science, analytical chemistry, and engineering, is leading to significant achievements in developing new tools that can be used to address challenges within the field,” added Laurie Littlepage, Ph.D., assistant professor of cancer research, University of Notre Dame.

In order to answer the big research questions, associating a measurement with a biochemical pathway or a fundamental mechanistic function relies on deciphering and understanding the complexity of the metabolic pathways of human physiology. “We need to try to get a metabolic map,” noted Subramaniam. This is the big challenge for the coming decade—to understand the complete human metabolome. But, he added, that the pieces are starting to fall into place.

Going where genomics cannot

Targeting events that are an “Achilles heel” for cancer cells is how the University of Kentucky’s Fan is pioneering metabolomics in cancer. Using 3D cultures from patient-derived organoids, Fan tests how individual patients respond to different drugs. Using 96-well plates, the Fan lab grows the organoids to which a tracer can be added to track the metabolism in the presence of a drug. Upon quenching the metabolism, they then measure the cell’s response to the drug metabolically using both NMR and MS. In the end, they are trying to understand the mechanism of how the drug impacts the cancer cell through metabolism.

Fan is pioneering research that will someday help patients receiving immunotherapeutics. Fan said that one of the powerful aspects to using metabolomics is harnessed with the plasticity of the immune system in patients. This is especially true with immunotherapy, where the efficacy can be dictated by the tumor microenvironment. For example, if the macrophage prevents the T cell from getting to the tumor, the therapy will not be efficacious, leading to poor patient survival.

Genetics cannot predict these findings, Fan said. Genomic screens are useful if the mutation has to do with the drug effects, but she finds that is not often the case as there are many examples where the environment determines the efficiency. Fan noted that we “need to put all of the omics together to tease apart a patient’s complexity.”

Some researchers work to map out metabolic landscapes of specific cancers. For example, recently published work in Cancer and Metabolism from the Littlepage Lab identified specific metabolic changes occurring during breast cancer, not only as compared to normal tissue but also as induced by multiple

individual oncogenes. The team mapped out the metabolic landscapes of a few commonly used genetically engineered mouse models of breast cancer, a useful resource for people who use these models to mimic human breast cancer patients to understand the effect of oncogenes. “Learning how individual molecular alterations perturb the metabolic landscape is essential to our understanding of how altered metabolism can be utilized as a vulnerability and targeted with therapy,” said Littlepage.

The long and winding road

The databases currently being built still are not broadly applicable in the clinic. In order to use metabolomics for diagnostics, and identifying a specific biomarker which cannot be detected with other, cheaper tools is necessary. Not only that, metabolomics is expensive and analysis can be time-consuming. So, a facility capable of quickly and cost-efficiently detecting the biomarker is also required.

One researcher noted that it cost “over $20,000 for 36 samples to run and analyze, and it took months to get the final data analyzed.” Even after all of this, due to the various different sample preparation methods and separation techniques, there might be metabolites whose levels are biased and may need to be verified with other methods. Even if all of the data is absolutely accurate, there are still not nearly as many good metabolic biomarkers as there are genetic ones. Sample collection from patients is another important consideration of bringing metabolomics to the clinic.

Despite the challenges that surround the sheer enormity of building a metabolomics database and other aspects of metabolomics, the researchers in the field see their work playing a role in advancing cancer treatment and diagnosis in the future. As Fiehn noted, it is “a long way to go from a cool idea to use as a standard in care.” But, metabolomics is uniquely positioned as a readout of mechanism and function. It can take many different studies to ascertain what a genetic mutation does and generations to see changes. However, in metabolomics, a change can be measured in minutes. With its many advantages and challenges, Fan said that “metabolomics is at that early stage—just like where genomics and proteomics started. But, we’ll get there.”


This article was originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of Clinical OMICs. For more content like this and details on how to get a free subscription, go to

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First Gene Therapy for Beta Thalassemia Will Cost Over €1.5M

First Gene Therapy for Beta Thalassemia Will Cost Over €1.5M

Zynteglo, a gene therapy developed by the US company bluebird bio for the treatment of beta-thalassemia, will cost European healthcare systems more than €1.5M per patient.

Following the approval of the treatment earlier this month, bluebird bio has now released the pricing plan of Zynteglo. Healthcare systems in Europe will need to pay €315,000 upfront, which will cover the first year after the patient receives the gene therapy. Over the next four years, the company is due another €315,000 per year. However, if the therapy fails and the patient requires a blood transfusion that year, then no payments are due.

This pricing makes Zynteglo the second-most expensive treatment in the world. The first is Novartis’ gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy, Zolgensma, which is priced at €1.9M ($2.1M) per patient in the US.

The huge prices for gene therapies are the subject of an ongoing debate on their affordability. To make the price more palatable, companies have started exploring new pricing models, including outcome-based payment plans, payable only if the therapy works.

Images from Shutterstock

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