Common lipids such as cholesterol are known to play an important part in the normal functioning of cells and tissues, but human cells contain thousands of different lipids which are also vital for functions that include storing energy, maintaining the structure of the cell and sending biochemical signals. Scientists are discovering that if the biochemical pathways that regulate the metabolism and transport of these lipids become disturbed, this can result in disease.
A report* published today by the European Science Foundation (ESF) urges greater cooperation among researchers and more investment in the field of 'lipidomics' – the term given to the identification and analysis of the full complement of lipids in cells, tissues and body fluids, together with associated molecular structures such as enzymes and genes. The document is the output of a science policy activity led by the European Medical Research Councils (EMRC), the medical section within ESF.
The ESF science policy briefing document, drawn up by an international panel of experts led by Professor Gerrit van Meer of Utrecht University in The Netherlands and Professor Friedrich Spener of the University of Graz in Austria, says that the study of lipids has been largely neglected because until recently technology did not exist to analyse this complex class of molecules comprehensively. However, the application of an analytical technique called mass spectrometry now allows large numbers of lipids to be analysed rapidly. "This remarkable technological breakthrough will make it possible to better understand the cellular machineries that are responsible for producing and storing energy in cells, for the transport across and between cell membranes and for the signalling in and out of cells to name but a few examples," the report states.
A concerted research effort in lipidomics would help shed light on conditions ranging from obesity and heart disease to cancer and Alzheimer's, the report says, while pointing out that the number of European researchers with expertise in lipidomics is low and that increased funding is needed to help Europe to catch up with the level of research in countries such as Japan and the US.
The science policy briefing makes several key recommendations that would boost lipidomics research in Europe:
Investment in research programmes aimed at training biomedical scientists in lipid-related fields
Investment in further development of technologies for studying lipids, while establishing and maintaining strong links between technology developers and researchers
Development of a strong, coordinated and interdisciplinary research effort across Europe to understand lipid function and the roles of lipids in health and disease
Integration of European lipid databases and the facilitation of their communication with other databases worldwide. This would allow the 'holistic' interpretation of lipid data and provide a greater understanding of the role of lipids in health and disease.
Professor van Meer said, "Lipidomics not only involves the study of lipids, but it also involves enzymes, transporters, genes, proteins, and their biophysics. The challenge is to unite all these different datasets and bring them together with disease pathology in one concentrated database." Such an approach would provide invaluable new insights into diagnosing, monitoring and even curing disease, Professor van Meer added.
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