CMISE to develop tool for viewing metabolomics of cells — the pathways within cells that show researchers how the body works at the smallest level

The Institute for Cell Mimetic Space Exploration (CMISE) at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has been awarded a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop an automated, chip-based metabolic analysis tool.

The cells of the human body are composed of many intricate subsystems that interact at multiple levels and are highly sensitive to environmental factors. Recent studies show that many degenerative health issues — including diabetes, digestive and kidney diseases, as well as cancer — actually damage the cell’s metabolic pathways. Metabolics — the study of the way in which the cellular metabolism works — seeks to use biological cells, intracellular components and molecular machines to build a self-regulating system for sensing and controlling specific environmental threats. Metabolomics is the mapping of these metabolic pathways within a cell.

UCLA chemical engineering professor James Liao, along with a team of researchers, will use the NIH Roadmap grant to develop a practical tool to aid in more easily extracting and measuring the metabolites, the substance produced by the metabolism, in cells. Though current technologies are available, these prove impractical on a large scale due to the high cost and the time-intensive manual labor required. Much of the complex equipment needed to process metabolites also is not widely available.

The goal of Liao’s work is to find a general technical platform that will enable health professionals to study the metabolic pathways of cells in a shorter amount of time, in a more efficient manner and without a lot of complex machinery.

“We are delighted and grateful that the NIH has chosen to award CMISE a $2 million Roadmap grant. Their funding will enable us to continue to pursue our focus on innovating new and better ways to identify, develop, and promote nano and bio information technologies for complex multilevel natural and artificial systems,” Liao said.

If Liao and his team are successful, these professionals will be able to extract metabolite from cells on what is basically a lab-on-a-chip platform, which will actually auto-mix tiny amounts of chemical solutions to prepare the relevant metabolites of the cells for extraction.

The resulting sample will then be placed onto a second, high-performance liquid chromatography or HPLC separation chip, which integrates sample enrichment and separation capabilities, and will allow the targeted analytes, or targeted chemical compound, to be more easily viewed in context with other metabolites. The results of the HPLC chip can then be sent directly to a specialty lab with mass spectroscopy capability to provide final results for the patient.

The practical outcome means a lower cost, less time spent waiting for results, a more efficient process and higher accuracy in results for the patient and doctor alike.

Other UCLA researchers working on the automated chip-based metabolic analysis are Dr. James Lin, Chih-Ming Ho, Dr. Ren Sun, Dr. Katrina Dipple and Dr. Edward McCabe. The group also will include Yu-Chong Tai from Cal-Tech and Terry Lee from City of Hope.

Funded in large part by a five-year, $15-million grant in 2003 from NASA with a renewal option for another five years totaling $30 million, CMISE focuses on four research paths: energetics, metabolics, systematics and CMISESat, a program at Texas A&M to teach students how to build one-pound satellites that can be launched into space. These satellites will serve as test beds to demonstrate that cell mimetics technology can work in space.