University of Georgia

UGA researcher uses small molecules to find disease

Photography By Andrew Davis Tucker
University of Georgia Researcher Art Edison

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Art Edison’s lab quickly switched gears.

As a member of the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center, Edison’s expertise lies in metabolomics, the study of essentially all the small molecules that make up an organism, tissues, or cells. Changes in the levels of these chemicals can be markers of disease. Edison and his lab hope these markers can help identify how COVID-19 is making people sick and what can be done to stop it.

“Metabolites are the things that are responding to what’s going on in a person’s life,” Edison said. “Whether it’s a specific disease or trying to find what makes a plant grow better, if you can measure the metabolites, you can know what’s really going on.”

Edison’s lab is comparing blood samples from healthy ferrets to sick ones and quickly sharing their findings with other researchers to help them create and test diagnostic tests and therapeutics.

Though the timeline for finding treatments and preventives for the novel coronavirus is sped up, the collaboration across teams both at UGA and other institutions across the country is familiar to Edison, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in NMR Spectroscopy and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

“Just about anything that you do to a person or an organism will affect its metabolite levels,” Edison said. “When you wake up in the morning and you have your coffee and your breakfast, that changes your metabolome in a significant way.”

Because these small molecules make up literally every living thing, there endless applications for his work, and Edison’s got his hand in dozens of projects happening around campus and beyond.

He’s working with Brian Hopkinson and Mary Ann Moran in Marine Sciences to see how climate change can affect metabolomic changes in phytoplankton in the world’s oceans. Considering that phytoplankton filters roughly half of the world’s carbon, even minor changes could have monumental consequences.

Edison is also working with other researchers at Georgia Tech and Emory to find markers of kidney cancer in urine and with scientists at the University of Florida to determine the effects of gestational cortisol, a common stress hormone, on newborn lambs. The lamb findings inspired a clinical study to see which women in a high-risk pregnancy group developed gestational diabetes and what markers can flag them as being higher risk for developing those condition. The goal is to find a marker to help tag patients as being higher risk for developing diabetes so health care providers can intervene early.

Another project with researchers at Emory has the goal of finding markers that would indicate the severity of a given case of prostate cancer. “We’d like to be able to have more simple measures that can provide clinicians with better tools to decide their course of action,” he explained.

But for Edison, that’s all in a day’s work.

“Whether it’s a specific disease or trying to find what makes a plant grow better, if you can measure the metabolites, you can know what’s really going on.”

– Art Edison, GRA Eminent Scholar in NMR Spectroscopy

University of Georgia researcher Art Edison

About the Researcher

Art Edison

Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar in NMR Spectroscopy
Franklin College of Art & Sciences
Complex Carbohydrate Research Center

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