‘Cutting-edge’ research at Macon college could help predict, prevent diseases, professor says

Local University receives largest ever grant to study metabolites

Middle Georgia State University professor Dr. Yingfeng Wang talks about a research gran the University received to study metabolites.
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Middle Georgia State University professor Dr. Yingfeng Wang talks about a research gran the University received to study metabolites.

The human body through its natural process is constantly breaking down chemical compounds and processing them into even smaller chemical compounds called metabolites.

Identifying metabolites is critical to medical science, pharmacy and microbiology.

Though scientists get results, not a lot is known about how metabolites are broken down inside the tandem mass spectrometer, the instrument used for identifying them. The rules for fragmentation, including what conditions must exist for metabolites to break down and how they break down inside the instrument, are unknown.

In other words, even though the input and output are known, there is little known information about what happens in between input and output, making the process impossible to understand.

“The challenge here is: how do you accurately and reliably identify metabolites,” said Yingfeng Wang, professor of information technology at Middle Georgia State University. “It’s still very hard. Very challenging. …. We want to explain what happened.”

The National Science Foundation recently awarded nearly a half a million dollars in grant money to the school for a three-year undergraduate research project to investigate how metabolites breakdown inside the tandem mass spectrometer. It is the largest research grant the school has received in its history.

“Hopefully, we can develop some tools that are reliable and accurate in this area, which will advance related areas such as microbiology, pharmacy and medical science,” Wang said. “Metabolite identification is a hot area.”

Myungjae Kwak, an information technology professor who is helping lead the research, said the improvements the study aims to make to the metabolite identification process could help prevent and predict diseases. For example, the human body produces unique sets of metabolites during different stages of cancer.

“If you can find out the very detailed group of metabolites, that means we can find which stage the cancer is in,” Kwak said. “Finding out which exact metabolites (exist) is the key to finding out what’s going on in the body.”

Information technology and biology students will work on the “cutting edge” research 15 hours per week for 48 weeks at a pay rate of $15 per hour, Wang said. Students will work with data that is already publicly available and process it with two high performance computers purchased with the grant money.

Michael Koohang, a senior student majoring in information technology, said it has been interesting to work with biology students and incorporate chemistry and statistics into the research.

“It’s a good opportunity for students to learn from each other,” Koohang said.

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.