Alberta Researcher Profile
Who: Dr. David Wishart
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta and Co-Director of The Metabolomics Innovation Centre (TMIC)
Dr. David Wishart is a Professor of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta with formal training in physics, biochemistry, biophysics, pharmaceutical science, and computational biology. Wishart has been a part of various company start-ups and intellectual property ventures during his time funded by Genome Canada and Genome Alberta. He is also the Co-Director of The Metabolomics Innovation Centre (TMIC), Canada's national metabolomics platform.
Science has always played a significant role within Dr. David Wishart’s family. With his father being a research biologist and his mother being a naturalist, Wishart has always had a long-standing interest in the natural world.
The conversations around science led to Wishart’s curiosity in subjects like astronomy and physics and he can even remember wanting to be a paleontologist after a trip to Drumheller where he found a pile of unusual fossils.
“[The discovery] surprised a bunch of people. And so that seemed to be, I guess, a hint that maybe I can uncover interesting things by looking under a few rocks, literally and figuratively.”
But it wasn’t until a relative of Wishart’s became sick that he realised how important urine samples using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) could be for early diagnosis of diseases.
“When they finally did diagnose the condition, it could have been easily detected by looking at a urine sample using NMR. And because I was trained in NMR spectroscopy, it got me intrigued to use NMR to study urine. So, we did and realized that not only did it give us very rich information but that we could also use some of the new techniques that my lab was experimenting with in artificial intelligence and machine learning to figure out what was in the urine samples.”
With an interest in NMR, and machine learning to rapidly characterize metabolites in urine, Wishart started a company called Chenomx Inc. Chenomx Inc uses NMR spectroscopy to interpret metabolic information obtained from fluids such as blood and to build a database that helps scientists identify, compare, and measure metabolites. Their services benefit a range of studies and sectors from drug efficacy and metabolism to food and nutrition and more.
Wishart says that more than ever there has been a push to apply multi omics techniques within the scientific field. With TMIC, Wishart has been exploring both metabolomics and proteomics.
“We're increasingly being asked to help interpret genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic data all together. We're finding that metabolomic data tells us a lot about the microbiome and people want to know more about that and understand it in more detail.”
The biggest reason for the push in understanding the data all together is finding ways to incorporate these tools within clinics, as people are rediscovering metabolomics as a high-powered form of clinical chemistry. It's also pushing a need for developing low cost metabolomic assays that can do various tests within one machine.
“This would potentially open opportunity for testing in a doctor's office or testing in remote rural areas or in the developing world to do diagnostics. So right now, we're involved in a project to do cancer testing, specifically colon cancer testing in Nigeria, using markers we discovered with expensive instruments, but translating them to low-cost instruments.”
Words of Advice
For his students, Wishart only wants them to keep an open mind and push them into spaces they may not have thought to explore.
“Be curious, follow your passion. But I think you know, don't view the world through boundaries, knock them down. Don't be afraid to explore areas that will blindside your comfort zone.”
This means following sciences that are growing and evolving, like metabolomics.
“Metabolomics is growing exponentially, whereas many the other ‘omics fields are sort of flattening out. And that's partly because these technologies matured a lot, whereas metabolomics is still developing. It's also because I think you can often do something to change your metabolism, whereas it's pretty hard to change your genome.”
Working with Genome Alberta
Wishart has been working with Genome Alberta for over fifteen years and has worked on the earliest stages of his projects with them to push the development of metabolomics in Alberta.
“Genome Alberta has been there since the beginning. It was a funder that started the human metabolism project in 2005, then it stepped in to help with the development of the Pan-Alberta Metabolomics Platform (PANAMP), when the human metabolome project ended in 2009, that gave us bridge funding to continue developing the human metabolome database and to build some of the expertise in Alberta.”
Since then, Genome Alberta has also helped in the launch of The Metabolomics Innovation Center in 2011.
“TMIC has grown from just three labs to eight labs across Canada in four different provinces. This growth and expansion have resulted in TMIC becoming a Canadian Foundation for Innovation Major Science Initiative Center, which is fairly prestigious…allowing TMIC to become Canada's national metabolomics and make Canada, one of the leading countries in the world in metabolomics.”
For more information on Wishart’s research visit the Wishart Research Group
and for information on The Metabolomics Innovation Centre visit TMIC