London’s Olympic Drug Testing Lab To Become National Phenome Center
One of the toughest challenges for London’s 2012 Olympic organizers has been to find uses for the infrastructure built around the games. Question marks still linger over the fate of the oversized stadiums, for instance. But at least one legacy is now assured: The Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), both funded by the U.K. government, have arranged to take over the Olympic anti- doping laboratory. They plan to transform it into a national center dedicated to metabolic phenotyping, a field that examines blood, urine, and tissues for the thousands of molecules produced by the body’s chemical reactions, with the aim of linking them to diseases.
“There is nothing like this anywhere in the world,” says Jeremy Nicholson, head of the surgery and cancer department at Imperial College London and a pioneer of the emerging field, who will become the center’s first research director. In a statement, MRC chief executive John Savill described it as “a fine legacy from the Games.”
The state-of-the-art antidoping laboratory, the size of seven tennis courts, was originally a partnership between drug-control scientists at King’s College London and the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. It was going to be closed at the end of the Olympics, says Jonathan Weber, research director for medicine at Imperial College London, who helped coordinate the proposal. “It just seemed too good an opportunity to lose,” he says. The switchover to the MRC-NIHR Phenome Centre, as it will be known, is slated for early October, and the lab will open for business in January. (The official announcement was planned for 1 August, after Science went to press.)
A phenome describes all of a person’s physiological traits in the same way that a genome describes genetic features. Metabolic phenotyping focuses on metabolites, the products of chemical reactions inside the body. “These are the result of gene-to- environment interaction; how our genes meet diet, gut microbes, pollutants, and drug use, for instance,” Nicholson says. By studying these unique biochemical signatures in fluids such as blood and urine, it’s possible to make connections between a person’s metabolism and the diseases they develop. In the long run, this could lead to diagnostic tests and drugs targeted to an individual’s personal biochemistry.
Nicholson’s plan is to take advantage of millions of epidemiological samples already held in tissue banks around the world, including the recently launched UK Biobank. He is also keen to get access to blood and urine samples collected from Olympic athletes, to compare with the metabolisms of ordinary people. The center will have “technologies that will allow us to measure hundreds of thousands of metabolites in one run,” he says.
The antidoping lab is well-suited to that task. It is fitted with mass spectrometers and machines for high-performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography, allowing high-throughput testing of more than 6000 urine and blood samples from athletes. About 60% of this equipment will be reused. The center will benefit from the antidoping laboratory’s high quality controls, which help ensure that thousands of samples can be reliably tracked—a vital component of Olympic drug tests because of the huge impact they can have on athletic careers.
Weber says there has been “a palpable sense of excitement” about the plans from scientists. Over the past decade, massive sums have gone into genome sequencing centers, he says, but “on the phenotyping side there is no comparable resource in the public sector.” Weber would like to use the center himself to study 400 samples from HIV patients suffering from loss in memory and cognitive performance, to better understand why they experience this decline and how it might be prevented. Mark Viant, a metabolomics researcher at the University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, in the United Kingdom, describes the center as “very exciting” because of the possibility it offers to carry out phenotyping studies “on an unprecedented scale.”
Financial support is shared between public institutions and industry. MRC and NIHR are each providing £5 million of funding; the site and buildings belong to GlaxoSmithKline, and the U.S.-based equipment manufacturers Bruker BioSpin and Waters will provide instrumentation. Robert Plumb, director of metabolic phenotyping at Waters, hopes that the center will help the company develop better equipment for metabolic phenotyping in the future. “The opportunity in front of us is to lay down a standard,” he says.
Scientists who want to use the phenome center will have to submit their proposals to an access committee, which will have an external chair. The center, which will also have its own international scientific advisory panel, will analyze about 25,000 samples in its first year, with the aim of scaling up to 100,000 a year. In the longer term, Nicholson says he would like it to at least double in size, and for similar facilities to open up around the world. “This is a template for future phenome center development,” Nicholson says. “We will be pioneering this, and others will have to follow.”