MERIT: The MEtabolomics standaRds Initiative in Toxicology

A group of international researchers have come together to outline best practice and reporting standards for metabolomics techniques used in the context of regulatory toxicology.

A group of international researchers have come together to outline best practice and reporting standards for metabolomics techniques used in the context of regulatory toxicology.

Metabolomics concerns itself with identifying and quantifying small organic molecules, which are involved in or produced by biochemical reactions occurring in living organisms (or communities of organisms). These molecules are referred to as ‘metabolites’, hence the term of ‘metabolomics’, which is one of the main types of “omics” technologies, along with genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics. These are massively parallel, and often high-throughput techniques, used for monitoring molecular entities (DNA/RNA molecules, proteins, lipids) genome-wide.

While increasingly popular in basic research as a means to characterise the biological response of organisms in different stages or exposed to various stressors, metabolomics has yet to reach significant uptake by groups acting as regulators and in charge of monitoring the safety of the industrial chemicals, as mandated for instance by the EU REACH policy.

The lack of data standards has often been singled out as one of the main obstacles to a wider adoption by regulatory agencies. The MERIT project, led by Prof. Mark Viant and Dr. Ralf Weber from the University of Birmingham, worked at providing a complete state of the art of the standardization efforts spearheaded by academic groups and how these could be used for the benefit of the regulators and chemical safety agencies. Better data standards are key for efficient mobilization of datasets for reanalysis, integration, meta-analysis as well as consumption by workflows and analytical engines. These instruments are central to ensuring efficient use to datasets produced by academia and industry alike. Preserving data well allows to capitalize on the financial efforts society, as a whole, makes when producing those datasets in the first place. Proper “data asset” handling is fundamental to setting up data-fluent systems, in this instance chemical safety vigilance ones. These can in turn, facilitate the type of epidemiological studies carried out at the United Nations Word Health Organization backed International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, which also participated in this work. Data standards are critical components to systems aimed at monitoring the safety of chemicals, for potentially helping detect adverse effects early but also for accumulating evidence of innocuity and thus help alleviate concerns.

An open access Nature Communication article outlines best practice and reporting standards for metabolomics techniques used in the context of regulatory toxicology. Among the authors is Dr Philippe Rocca-Serra, a Senior Researcher and Associate Member of Faculty at the Department of Engineering Science based at the OeRC. As part of the Metabolomics Society Data Standards Task Group (MSI DSTG), he develops and contributes to several key specifications used to harmonize the reporting of Metabolomics data, ranging from experimental design information (ISA framework), to raw data format (MzML, Mztab in mass spectrometry, and nmrML).

According to Dr Rocca-Serra "This work represents a major milestone in raising awareness in standardization initiatives led by academia and others to the level of regulatory agencies. It also identifies areas where more efforts are required and thus it is hoped that funding bodies will help address these unmet needs"