Bringing the power of NMR to everyday healthcare

Can nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) play a more visible role in tackling the health challenges found in today’s society? Prof. Dr. Ulrich Günther believes it can, and that prospects are looking particularly strong in the field of personalized medicine. We talk to him about why NMR is so well-suited to this emerging area of research.

The emergence of NMR as a healthcare tool
Prof. Dr. Günther has a deep appreciation for the power of NMR to provide insights at a molecular level. “I’ve worked in NMR all my life,” he says, “and so I’ve had the excitement of seeing new techniques and applications emerge.”

This evolution of NMR, he explains, is something that is continuing today. “For many years, NMR has been used to provide detailed structures of proteins, DNA, and other biomolecules in a research setting, but with the arrival of COVID-19, there was something of a shift. Within a few months, we were applying a variety of advanced NMR techniques in large-scale studies to tackle an urgent real-world problem – and as a result, we not only gained some amazing insights, but greatly enhanced the profile of NMR as an investigative tool.”

“It seems to me that we’re witnessing a transition, from NMR being used primarily for research, to one that has relevance to healthcare more broadly, whether for developing strategies to tackle COVID-19 or for improving day-to-day healthcare.”

And it’s this latter aspect that has recently been the focus of Prof. Dr. Günther’s attention. “Everyone wants to know their health status, and their risk of developing diseases like cancer or cardiovascular disease,” he says. “By using NMR to study the metabolites present in biological fluids such as blood and urine, we can start to understand the processes happening within the body that give rise to these metabolites.”

Obtaining deep insights with NMR
The degree of information that can be obtained through this field of ‘NMR metabolomics’ is a key driver of medical insights, he says: “Using NMR, we can obtain very detailed data on specific biomolecules relevant to health.” Examples he cites include cholesterol and triglycerides in fatty tissues, to biomarkers in urine. The latter, he says “have the potential to be used as predictive biomarkers – for example, there are several publications showing that the urine profile changes very markedly in organisms undergoing metabolic changes because of cancer.”

The depth and reliability of the information acquired with NMR, he suggests, is a key reason for the success of the technique in metabolomics. “For example, the Bruker NMR instrument we use here at Lübeck is a powerful research tool that gives us uniquely detailed information about our samples,” he says. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that NMR is the ultimate analytical technology used in this field.”

Helping to standardize biobanks
But it’s not all plain sailing, he says, because of the difficulty in obtaining large sets of medically verified biological samples for their research. “Biobanks, because of their size and variety, could be an ideal tool for metabolomics researchers, but the problem is that the samples aren’t always collected in a consistent way, and the corresponding medical data is often incomplete.”

This problem limits the value of these biobanks in the research of his group and other studying metabolomics. So, Prof. Dr. Günther is currently involved in a proposal for EU funding relating to the use of biobanked samples in cancer research. As he says, “To make best use of biobanks for our NMR research, we need standardized, well-classified samples with sufficient clinical metadata to enable us to interpret the results.”

The future – personalized healthcare enabled by NMR?
Prof. Dr. Günther remains as enthusiastic about NMR as he always has been. “Over the years, working with NMR has been exciting and stimulating, especially when conducted in collaboration with international researchers,” he says. “And the new research avenues opening up within metabolomics are yet another illustration of the power and versatility of this technique.”

Now, he says, by unlocking insights into metabolism, we have the exciting prospect of personalized nutrition. “Can we optimize an individual’s diet to improve their health outcomes? The answer is yes, I think we can – and every day we’re a step closer to making that prospect a reality.”

Bruker NMR Instruments are for research use only and not intended for Use in Clinical Diagnostic Procedures.

Since 2019, Prof. Dr. Ulrich Günther has been at the Institute of Chemistry and Metabolomics at the University of Lübeck, Germany, where he holds the Chair of Metabolomics. For the 17 years prior to this appointment, he was Professor of Biophysical Chemistry at the University of Birmingham, UK, where he helped found the HWB-NMR facility.