Metabolon Study to Provide Better Understanding of COVID-19

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Why do some patients die from the COVID-19 coronavirus, while others have symptoms so mild they may not even realize they’re sick?  How can treatments for the disease work in some cases, while having no positive effect in others?

These are just a couple of the questions Metabolon, a Morrisville-based precision health company, hopes to answer during a year-long COVID-19 study it is conducting with the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB). The project will likely expand to include other health research groups on the West Coast in the future.

ISB, based is Seattle, is a non-profit organization that specializes in understanding complex data and using that knowledge to improve health.

Metabolon – as its name implies – focuses on a technology called metabolomics. That’s the large-scale study of small molecules – or metabolites – within cells, biological fluids, tissues and organisms. Metabolon can help researchers profile a patient’s metabolome – the biochemistry of these small molecules and their interactions within a biological system – to better understand the source of disease, its development and treatment.

Metabolon scientists wearing personal protective equipment.
Metabolon scientists on COVID-19 work wearing personal protective equipment. -- Metabolon photo

Metabolon said its research can help fill the gaps in understanding the coronavirus and lead to better, more-targeted treatments.

As COVID-19 has spread, no clear patterns have emerged around the effects of age, gender and pre-existing conditions, the company pointed out. Previous studies of viral infections suggest that patients’ metabolic profiles can change during disease development. And that can influence how a patient’s immune system responds and how well that person can clear the virus from the lungs and other organs.

ISB is collecting blood samples from 200 COVID-19 patients at various stages and severity of the disease. Metabolon runs metabolomics tests and analyzes blood biomarkers from the samples. Genomics, single-cell analytics and other data also are factored into the study.

The goal is to better understand the progression of the disease, who is at the greatest risk to get seriously ill, and which treatments are most likely to work on which patients.

The study is co-led by ISB President James R. Heath, Ph.D., and Jason Goldman, M.D., an infectious disease specialist with Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. “Each of the COVID-19 patients has a unique lesson to teach us about how the medical and scientific community can respond most effectively to this pandemic,” Heath noted.

“The entire scientific community is working overtime to find answers that will deliver effective therapeutics and prevention strategies to overcome the coronavirus pandemic,” added Rohan (Ro) Hastie, Ph.D., Metabolon’s president and CEO. “This is a time when partnerships in the scientific community are essential to uncover solutions quickly.”

Metabolon said initial results from the study are being submitted for publication and more details should be broadly available soon. 

The company was founded in 2000 and currently employs 212 people. One of them, Meredith Brown, Ph.D., joined Metabolon in 2008 on a two-year industrial fellowship funded by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center to help boost the company's development. She is now associate director of intellectual property.

Bryant Haskins, NCBiotech Writer
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