Centre could bring about new age of ‘precision medicine’

A new research centre at Imperial College London aims to help doctors diagnose illness more efficiently and choose the best treatments based on a patient’s metabolic and physiological characteristics.

According to the university, technologies that analyse the chemical make-up of a tissue or body fluid sample have been used extensively in research, but their ability to provide information about someone’s physical condition or disease state is only just beginning to be exploited in medicine.

In a paper published in Nature, researchers at the new centre describe how such biochemical data could inform each stage of a patient’s treatment and also enhance clinical trials of new therapies.

The Imperial Clinical Phenome Centre, based at St Mary’s Hospital, brings together technologies for rapid molecular analysis to the hospital setting, aiming to put them at the centre of clinical decision making.

The centre includes technologies based on mass spectrometry deployed in the operating theatre to give surgeons diagnostic information in real time.

One of the tools, being developed by Dr Zoltan Takats, is the so-called ‘intelligent knife’, which analyses the smoke produced when the electrically heated surgical blade cuts into tissue during an operating procedure.

Research is said to have shown that the profile of the chemicals in the smoke provides detailed information about the disease state of the tissue, such as whether it is cancerous, otherwise diseased or non-viable.

Other projects at the centre will develop diagnostic methods based on tissue samples and fluids such as blood and urine. The profile of chemicals present in a sample provides a read-out of the patient’s disease classification and severity. This information can inform doctors how the disease will progress in an individual patient or how the patient is responding to a particular drug and could potentially be used to predict therapeutic outcomes.

The Imperial Clinical Phenome Centre is jointly funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial Biomedical Research Centre and industrial partners, including Waters Corporation and Bruker Spectrospin. It will be equipped with three nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers and six mass spectrometers plus a new research staff core.

In a statement, Prof Jeremy Nicholson, head of the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, said: ‘These analytical technologies are now very mature and are immensely powerful for telling us about someone’s physical condition and disease state.

‘Bringing them fully into the clinical setting will help doctors make a more informed diagnosis, choose the best treatment based on the individual characteristics of the patient and monitor their progress more precisely. It is the dawn of a new age of precision medicine.’