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Meeting of Metabolomic Minds

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While some collaborations are brought together by large grants simply to tackle a research problem, others are based on mutual reciprocity. Such is the case with a new joint effort between the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and the Sarah W. Stedman Nutrition and Metabolism Center at the Duke University Medical Center. Together, they aim to further the development of metabolomic technologies for personalized medicine.

The Stedman Center already had well-established metabolomic technology expertise — including an impressive track record using mass spectrometry-based methods to profile biological samples. For example, last year, a team at the Stedman applied metabolomic technologies to discover new mechanisms that help elucidate the roles that overeating and obesity play in insulin resistance. They also used their expertise to uncover some of the metabolic signatures involved in the development of cardiovascular disease.

When Sanford-Burnham hoisted its flag in the field of metabolic disease research, thanks to scientific director Dan Kelly, rather than viewing it as a competitive threat, the folks over at the Stedman Center saw it as an opportunity to put their heads together. "One of things I wanted to achieve was to look for possible synergies between two centers that are going to be focusing in the same topic area, within the same geographic region. So rather than setting up a competition, we looked for ways to be collaborative," says Christopher Newgard, director of the Stedman Center. "We have been developing metabolomic technologies since 2002. We've made a lot of progress and I think I was able to convince Kelly that, rather than make the same mistakes that we did, it would be a more efficient route to team with us and have the benefit of the technologies that we could bring to the party that we've already developed."

The win for the Stedman Center is that, by combining the institutes' capabilities in one entity over time, technology development could be split evenly between both sites in the future, thereby enabling greater and more rapid strides in technology development than either unit could do separately.

On the Sanford-Burnham side, the collaboration came about as a result of Kelly and CEO John Reed recognizing the need for their institute to jump into the metabolomics arena in a big way. "Because of that and the firsthand knowledge of Chris Newgard, and the fine center of excellence that he has at the Stedman Center, it was logical to reach out to Chris to explore whether there was some interest on his part in establishing what was going to be the partnership that was finally put together," says Steve Gardell, director of translational research resources at Sanford-Burnham.

Fueled by a burning desire to get cracking on technology development, neither site wasted time by pitching the need for this partnership to any funding body. Instead, they dug into their own coffers without thinking twice. "We wanted to get moving quickly, so the first phase has been initiated with our own discretionary funding," Newgard says. "But we're in the process of writing grants as we speak and we're hopeful that, having declared this alliance, we now will be able to use it to help secure funding in the future."


Assay development

At this stage, researchers at the Stedman Center are working with the Burnham team at the Lake Nona, Fla., campus to devise a slew of assays for specific metabolites. "The assay modules that we've developed have broad utility. Nevertheless, one of the things that we're constantly looking for is to be able to address what might be some of the specific needs of our investigators at the Sanford-Burnham," Gardell says. "As we look towards the future, one of the things that we're going to be doing is establishing new assay modules to give us the capability to be able to measure ... a variety of different analytes which would have utility for other investigators at the Burnham." So far Gardell says that they have made assay modules at Sanford-Burnham.

In addition, they have established their customer base with respect to their fellow faculty members at Burnham, and that the collaboration itself is generating a lot of interest. "We are receiving several sample batches a week for us to be able to apply our newly developed skills and techniques for analysis," he says. "We're open for business here, and are delivering data to the Sanford faculty members."

Constant communication

Like any type of partnership, it's all about the communication and face-to-face interaction. "I think we've done an excellent job at establishing and maintaining communication," Gardell says. "But there's the distance issue obviously — actually some of the Duke scientists are on the ground and that's serving as a very effective way to be able to transfer the technology and knowledge which is critical for us to be successful."

At this point, the Stedman's senior technical staff is bearing the brunt of traveling and living away from their families in order to inculcate the Sanford-Burnham staff into their metabolomics know-how, but Newgard says that ultimately those initial sacrifices are well worth making to ensure that everything runs smoothly in these early stages. "There are always some issues when working from a distance," he says. "The burden has fallen on some of our guys to travel a lot and live away from home, but beyond that, things have gone extremely smoothly."

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