The Physical Chemistry of Precision Nutrition

Through the ages, science has often been in the company of poetry. They came together recently when Susan Sumner, PhD, described how she got her start in Biomarker Discovery using spectroscopic methods as an undergraduate at North Carolina State University (NCSU): “I found it exciting to envision molecules dancing in multidimensional space in response to applied physical factors such as magnets, radio frequency pulses, or electric fields.”

Sumner is a professor of nutrition at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) and in the Department of Nutrition at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill. At the NRI she leads her laboratory in research using advanced spectroscopic methods to detect tens of thousands of signals in human biological materials (such as urine, blood, and sweat). The lab uses complex data-analysis tools to identify low-molecular-weight metabolites that define an individual’s metabotype, which is influenced by genetics and many other factors such as smoking, stress, diet, medications, or chemical exposures.

It sounds complicated, and it is. But, Sumner was naturally drawn to it. “I played with my older brother’s chemistry set all the time as a child,” she said. “I was very interested in chemical reactions (I made hair dye and perfumes for my baby dolls), and I enjoyed studying structures under the microscope.” From her grandmother, who had been a long-time nurse in Concord, NC, and the hospital chief for whom she worked, Sumner learned about what she calls “the magic of medicine,” which informed her childhood and teenage work in an animal clinic. “I started out cleaning cages as an unpaid employee (often receiving free food and vaccinations for my pets) and then when I was old enough, I got a work permit and started getting a paycheck. The most exciting part was getting trained to assist in surgery and run the clinical chemistry tests.”

So, upon enrolling at NCSU, she thought she would major in animal science with an eye toward veterinary school. But fate stepped in when the chemistry department encouraged her to pursue a career in physical chemistry. Although women were represented in organic and inorganic chemistry, at that time they were unrepresented in physical chemistry and the department was actively recruiting. They saw in Sumner an excellent candidate and they were right. It was such a good fit that she changed her major to chemistry and stayed in the department for graduate school. Following graduate studies in spectroscopy, Sumner started applying spectroscopic methods to biological problems as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Her expertise in spectroscopy equipped her to gain research funding to direct analytical cores for the NIH Common Fund Metabolomics Program, and the National Institutes of Environmental Health Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource (CHEAR). Then her work brought her to the NRI.

The primary aim of Sumner’s research at the NRI is to reveal biomarkers and gain mechanistic insights for personalizing nutrition. Her lab does this by comparing the metabotypes of individuals who have different states of health and wellness and determining the genetic and environmental factors that most contribute to the differences in metabotypes among individuals. By figuring out which metabolites associate with health and wellness, her team determines metabolic pathways that are disrupted by exposure or disease status. This research is important because it is applicable to a wide range of disease areas, and can inform the development of nutritional interventions.

Sumner is passionate about her work. She always has been, whether as a childhood mother’s helper, berry picker, mill worker, veterinary assistant, or teaching assistant. Her lifetime of varied experiences has led to her position today where she continues to serve as director of NIH-funded analytical cores, but more importantly as a continued mentor to students and early career scientists crossing scientific disciplines to bring spectroscopic methods to solve biological problems. Many of her family members farmed or worked in the mills, so from an early age, “I had an understanding that hard work pays off,” she said. Her father instilled this strong work ethic in her as a child; an attribute she says is her most important, even today, for running a successful laboratory.

We’re all benefiting from the hard work the Sumner Lab at NRI is producing. There are many types of clinical tests currently available to help medical doctors diagnose disease, but there are not many types of tests that detect disease early, or monitor the response to treatment. “We’re conducting studies to understand more about how disease is initiated, and how we can use nutrition to intervene.”

Sumner’s research exemplifies the NRI’s mission of understanding Precision Nutrition.

Posted: December 15, 2018