Pioneering personalised healthcare in a pandemic

Cutting-edge research at the Australian National Phenome Centre is set to reshape how long and how well people live around the world – through this pandemic and beyond.

We are constantly interacting with our environment and making personal choices that impact our health. Everything from what we eat to whether we wear face masks changes our life trajectory.

However, until now, the full health ramifications of where and how we live has been unclear.

Researchers at the Australian National Phenome Centre (ANPC) are changing that by mapping our unique biological fingerprints. What they’re discovering is poised to herald a new age of personalised healthcare – and shape the way we address the current COVID-19 pandemic and those that follow.

Researchers in a labImage caption: Dr Torben Kimhofer and Dr Nicola Gray handling samples in the ANPC laboratory

The next frontier of healthcare

A person’s phenome is a snapshot of their unique biology resulting from complex interactions between their genes and the environment – things like diet, lifestyle and exposure to pollutants.

Analysing these biological fingerprints helps us understand the underlying causes of disease and develop personalised approaches to prevention and treatment.

“We all want to live long and healthy lives, and the aim for researchers and medical professionals is to help people not just live until 100, but to be healthy throughout this time,” explained Professor Jeremy Nicholson, who leads the ANPC at Murdoch University.

“In order to do this, we need to intervene early to know what is coming and phenomics can help us to achieve this. In the future, precision medicine will start at birth.”

It could help you lose weight through a better understanding of the unique bacterial environment existing in your gut. It could help to predict whether you will develop cancer, diabetes or Alzheimer’s.

And it could help to stem the progression of diseases like COVID-19 by guiding preventative measures and tailored treatments.

Scientists in a labImage caption: Dr Samantha Lodge and Dr Philipp Nitschke analysing COVID-19 samples at the ANPC

Tackling the world’s greatest challenge

Research priorities at the ANPC match the health issues facing Australia and the world. Today, the centre is entirely dedicated to COVID-19.

Working with researchers at the University of Cambridge, Professor Nicholson and his team have already developed a predictive metabolic model for COVID-19 infection that shows the disease has multi-organ effects.

To do this, researchers collected blood plasma specimens from a group of COVID-19 positive patients and a control group of healthy age and body mass matched participants to determine the key metabolic differences between the groups.

The samples were analysed using state-of-the-art metabolic phenotyping technologies, which revealed a profound biological fingerprint of the disease. This fingerprint includes elements of liver dysfunction, dyslipidaemia, diabetes and coronary heart disease risk.

“What we have uncovered is the Pandora’s Box of diseases,” said Professor Nicholson.

Perhaps the most important observation is that the disease involves multiple organs and the majority of the patients show signs of newly presenting diabetes and liver damage, irrespective of the severity of the lung symptoms.

“What we do not yet know is how persistent these symptoms are or whether they change long term disease risks for recovered patients. Detailed follow up studies on recovered patients will be crucial to our understanding of long-term disease risks.”

While COVID-19 was initially assumed to be a respiratory disease, the findings indicate there are several disease trajectories. Even mild early cases appear to have the capacity to progress much later into acute health risks.

This is the basis of the term ‘long covid’, which refers to the ongoing health implications that Professor Nicholson and his team are working to understand.

“We believe this is just the beginning of a journey of discovery we need to be on to guide us out of this disease. A vaccine may save those in the future but much needs to be done to help those who have already been infected,” said Professor Nicholson.

“This is the work our world-leading facility was built to do – deliver real diagnostic and prognostic solutions in an accelerated time-frame to global problems.”

A researcher in PPE preparing COVID samplesImage caption:Dr Samantha Lodge preparing COVID-19 samples for analysis

Beyond COVID-19

The scope of research at the ANPC goes beyond the present pandemic and could help inform the fight against current and future public health issues like antibiotic resistance, obesity and an increase in tropical diseases in developed countries as a result of climate change.

“Phenomic research identifies how genes and the environment come together to create disease risks. And then how that can be prevented. Diabetes, which is sweeping the world, is a good example. If we can understand the drivers for it in different places, we can prevent it at global scale,” explained Professor Nicholson.

“At an individual level, phenomics can identify why some diets work for some people and not others. Or why some immune suppressant treatments work for some cancer patients and not others.”

The applications of the science also go beyond human health into agriculture, animal health and the environment.

“Phenomics will answer the many questions we have about what is occurring at the molecular level in all living things,” said Professor Nicholson.

Being able to analyse plants and animals in such an intricate way may just lead us to the next antibiotic treatment or cure for cancer.”

Ultimately, this science will revolutionise our understanding of the world’s biggest health challenges and provide personalised pathways for living longer, healthier lives.