The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a four-year grant of $ 1.37 million to biostatistician Raji Balasubramanian of the University of Massachusetts Amherst to advance the analysis of data from metabolomics research. These studies examine, at the molecular level, the links between metabolism and the risk of chronic diseases, from heart disease and stroke to breast cancer and other complex diseases.
Balasubramanian, Associate Professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, will lead an interdisciplinary team in the development and application of new statistical models to more effectively dismantle the growing base of metabolomics data sources. The other lead investigator is Denise Scholtens, director of biostatistics and director of the data analysis and coordination center at Northwestern University.
Metabolomics focuses on studying the universe of small molecule metabolites involved in the body’s chemical reactions, measured in blood, urine, saliva and other fluids.
“It provides an overview of our biochemical status and aggregates the influences of genetic and environmental factors,” explains Balasubramanian. “Our small molecule metabolites are not only influenced by our genetic profile, but also by what we eat, how much we exercise, the air we breathe and so on.”
In recent years, research on the metabolome in population-based studies has grown exponentially, and processing the extensive data has presented researchers with methodological challenges. Balasubramanian’s NIH grant will fund the work to address these challenges.
The first goal, she says, is to develop a statistical approach to variable selection that is specifically tailored to the characteristics of data generated in metabolomics studies. “We want to do this in a way that takes into account the fact that metabolites are interdependent and work together in different known biological ways,” says Balasubramanian.
Second, researchers will also develop methods to identify different networks of metabolites in which different connectivity patterns between exposure or phenotype groups can provide information about the underlying biology.
“In many studies we see metabolites as mediators of the relationship between exposure and outcome,” says Balasubramanian. “We want to develop models that can identify not only individual metabolites that act as mediators, but also networks of metabolites that can act as mediators.”
The network-based approaches to data analysis that Balasubramanian is developing will provide new tools that can be widely applied in metabolomics studies of chronic diseases in human populations.
In her lab, Balasubramanian is currently conducting metabolomics research in collaboration with medical researchers from Harvard Medical School in other NIH-funded studies to understand the molecular basis of common conditions such as stress and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as cardiovascular disease and stroke, breast cancer and Kidney disease.
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