Metabolon and Metabolomics [transcript] [audio]

Guest: Dr. Mike Milburn, PhD

Presenter: Neal Howard

Guest Bio: Dr. Milburn has served as Chief Scientific Officer since 2005 and is responsible for the global metabolomics technology development, laboratory operations, informatics, and data science. Before joining Metabolon, he was Senior Vice President of Research and Corporate Development at Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, where he led the preclinical/clinical development of drugs in metabolic disease and neurodegeneration. Prior to Sirtris, Dr. Milburn was Senior Vice President of Research at Plexxikon and was responsible for the development of its proprietary high-throughput, scaffold-based chemical technology platform. He also held various research positions at Glaxo and GlaxoWellcome from 1991 to 2001. Dr. Milburn received his PhD in biophysical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley and was a post-doctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School.  

Segment Overview: Dr. Mike Milburn, PhD, CSO at Metabolon, discusses how studying metabolites can lead to biomarker discoveries, pharmaceutical R&D advancements, and the development of new diagnostic tests.


Neal Howard: Hello and welcome to this health supplier segment here on Health Professional Radio, glad that you could join us today. I’m your host Neal Howard. Our guest is Dr. Mike Milburn. He’s a CSO at Metabolon and he’s joining us here on the program to talk about how studying metabolites can lead to biomarker discoveries, possible pharmaceutical R&D advancements, and even development of some new diagnostic testing. Welcome to the program Dr. Mike Milburn.

Dr. Mike Milburn: Thanks for having me Neal.

N: Give us just a little bit about your background and expertise.

M: Sure. My PhD is in biophysical chemistry and from there I went on to help develop small startup companies in the biotech area. My expertise is primarily in developing plat, what we call platform technology, so the ability to do large-scale genomics or as in this case metabolomics. I’ve been with several other companies and have been with Metabolon now for close to 14 years.

N: Metabolomics. What is metabolomics and I understand it has to do with metabolites obviously but is that just study of metabolites or is there something a bit more in depth in that term?

M: Yes. It’s not a very common household term metabolomics but I think you’re going to be hearing more and more about this technology and this capability. At the core of our company and what the technology is to be able to measure all of the bio chemicals or the metabolites in a human sample like a blood sample simultaneously. You can kind of think of it like when you go to the doctor or a physician as you do your annual physical, you may measure metabolite panel, lipid panel, cholesterol, LDL, HDL, things like that. What we do is we take the same type of sample but we actually measure thousands of biochemicals. We quantitate those biochemical. So we get, if you will kind of a microscopic picture of what’s happening from a metabolism standpoint in the individual or in a cell or lots of different applications of it.

N: As you said not a common household term, give us a brief definition of metabolites. What are they?

M: Metabolites are typically any small molecule. A small molecule being things that are non proteinaceous or non RNA, non-dna. Technically, their molecules are biochemicals less than a thousand daltons. And metabolites that word specifically is more about those bio chemicals that are in humans or from human biochemistry.

N: Are they more useful or lend themselves better to being researched and developed for benefit, whether they’re young or old? Does that have anything to do with the age of the metabolites?

M: Not so much of the age of the metabolites but certainly, for instance in ageing. It’s a very important study. We got into this field just to give you a little background. At the time when there was a lot of emphasis on genetics and genomics and it was clear that being able to understand an individual’s genetics is going to become cheaper and faster and more comprehensive. One of the complications of that is even though we might know a lot about the DNA coding which is kind of like the programming of the cell, what we don’t know so much about is what that programming is doing. That’s really where our technology comes in, is that we through the measurement of these bio chemicals, these metabolites and being able to measure as many as we do, we can actually get a picture of what your genetics, or what mutations you have might be affecting your individual metabolism. We run literally hundreds of thousands of samples a year which is largely devoted to better understanding genetic disease or health assessment of your underlying genetics. That was really kind of the emphasis of developing the company thirteen years ago, was to be able to provide this additional information that you can combine with things like DNA. But also look at diseases and things like that with this technology.

N: Those several factors that you just mentioned there briefly would you say that any one of those are the reason why this is the next step in the future of healthcare overall? Or would you say that one of those factors maybe is a little bit more important than the other?

M: I would think for your listeners probably the two biggest factors that I would try to take away from hearing about metabolomics is number one, it is a very powerful way of understanding the penetrants of genetic changes or genetic mutations that an individual might have. For instance, we’ve shown even from carrier status where you’re a heterozygous mutation rather than a homozygous mutation that can actually be very phenotypic in terms of having different biochemical consequences or different metabolism consequences. In fact we have diagnostic tests that combined with genetics to better understand these types of diseases that are sometimes just health consequences. That’s number one. I think in the future you’re going to hear more and more about this technology because it’s complements so much of what we don’t understand yet about your DNA sequence. Then I think secondly the big area is that because we’re measuring so many biochemical simultaneously, we are finding novel biomarkers. We’re finding biomarkers of disease or biomarkers of health consequences or as an example there’s a lot of information now about your microbiome – the bacteria that live in your gut and how that affects your health. But we’re finding hundreds of bio chemicals that this bacterium make or maintain homeostatic lay in your blood. These are turning out to have important consequences in different diseases. If your metabolism of your bacteria is out of whack to what a normal individual is, that can have health consequences. Those two factors, the importance of this technology in genetic and the importance of this technology as new biomarker sources or new diagnostic tests. It’s probably the two most important areas for where this is going in the future.

N: Metabolon has been around since 2005, I do believe or even earlier. You’ve been there since 2005. Has any of the projects or things that your company is working on, have they gotten us any closer to manipulating DNA in a preventive sort of way as opposed to or in addition to this early discovery of some of these maladies?

M: Yes, that’s a great question. I think if you go to our website, you’ll find a lot of information there about papers that we’ve published looking at normal populations genetics and the consequences of individuals in those populations with having biochemical abnormalities. We’ve also published a number of papers on even new genetic diseases that we’ve helped discover based on combination of a mutation in a protein coding sequence combined with biochemical abnormalities. I think one of the really interesting examples that we have is looking at a relatively normal population that this was actually a population of twins. We looked at over 2000 twins and we had measurements of these twins over a period of 20 years. We had three independent blood measurements over 20 years of these twins. Some of these twins, both pairs of the twins would have the most abnormal biochemicals and compared to the rest of the population, but they’ve had it for their whole or for the past 20 years. We’ve been able to show that there’s specific genes that are mutated, that are giving rise to the biochemical abnormality. And that’s true even for being a carrier status not necessarily even homozygous are having both mutations, both of alleles for those mutation site. There’s a lot of that information that’s coming out now and I think you can find a lot of it on our website.

N: Once again what is that website address?

M: It’s

N: Thank you so much for talking with us today Dr. Milburn.

M: It was a pleasure. Thank you for having us.

N: You’ve been listening to Health Professional Radio, this health supplier segment. In studio with Dr. Mike Milburn, CSO at Metabolon. Transcripts and audio of the program are available at and also at You can subscribe to this podcast on itunes, listen in and download at SoundCloud. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter and be sure and visit our affiliates page at

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