When Morgan Cichon completed her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and economics at Emory University, she knew she wanted to pursue an advanced degree in a chemistry-related field in which her research would be applied.
She is thrilled to have landed in the lab of Steven Schwartz, PhD, the Carl E. Haas Endowed Chair in Ohio State’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, where she applies analytical chemistry to the study of foods and their effects on human health. “This is a great way to continue doing analytical chemistry, while having this really nice application to food that allows me to see direct outcomes from my research,” she says. “It’s exciting.”
Ohio State is one of just a few research institutions focusing on the study of metabolomics as it relates to food and nutrition through the Discovery Themes, the university’s effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges. For the past five years, Cichon has worked on her doctorate focused on the unbiased and systematic analysis of all small molecule metabolites in a biological system. “That biological system can be a lot of things—human urine, blood, animal tissues, cells, plants, food,” says Cichon. “We can apply these techniques to studying metabolites in a variety of samples to better understand the relationship between foods and health on a molecular level.”
Working in Schwartz’s lab, Cichon has focused on bioactive components in tomato products using an untargeted metabolomics approach. “Research suggests a correlation between the increased consumption of tomato products and a decreased risk of cancers and other diseases, including prostate cancer,” she says. “We want to understand more about that relationship in the hopes of providing better dietary recommendations and solutions, especially for high-risk individuals.”
Of particular interest is the tangerine tomato, which contains lycopene (the pigment responsible for the color of tomatoes) in a unique bent configuration that gives the tomato an orange color. Compared to traditional red varieties, this seemingly minor difference may enable the lycopene from the tangerine tomato to be more easily absorbed by the body. “Research suggests that lycopene is one of the bioactive compounds in the tomato that is responsible for some of its protective effects,” explains Cichon. “That’s why we want to increase circulating levels of lycopene and the delivery of lycopene to certain target tissues like the prostate.”
A clinical trial is underway with Schwartz and longtime collaborator Steven Clinton, MD, PhD, the John B. and Jane T. McCoy Chair in Cancer Research in Ohio State’s College of Medicine, that provides juice from red and tangerine tomatoes to prostate cancer patients who are pre-prostatectomy. Blood, urine and prostate tissue will be collected and analyzed for effects of the juices on biomarkers, as well as overall changes in the human metabolome.
The study’s goal? To determine biological differences between red and tangerine tomato juices and develop a better understanding of the phytochemical metabolite differences that may have contributed to those biological effects. “The study will give us more information about compounds in the tomatoes that might be contributing to their cancer protective effect.”
The emerging field of metabolomics for food and health is especially exciting at Ohio State, says Cichon. With a medical school, world-class cancer center and college of agriculture, as well as departments of human nutrition and food science all within close proximity, intra-university collaboration is encouraged and expected. Even the tomatoes used in the study were grown at Ohio State’s Wooster campus by David Francis, PhD, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, enabling a truly crops-to-clinic approach. “Metabolomics is such an interdisciplinary field, and we need people from all these different areas to make these studies a success,” says Cichon. “And with the Discovery Themes, Ohio State is the place to be doing this work.
This work aligns with Personalized Food and Nutritional Metabolomics for Health, one of the investment areas in The Ohio State University’s Discovery Themes initiative. This focus area centers on increasing understanding of individual biochemical variability in response to diet- and food-based interventions to improve health and prevent disease, and as a sound basis for appropriate dietary recommendations and public health messages.
The Discovery Themes initiative is a significant investment in four thematic areas in which the university will make a global impact: Energy and the Environment, Food Production and Security, Health and Wellness, and Humanities and Arts. As the nation’s most comprehensive university and one of the top institutions for industry-sponsored research, Ohio State is able to collaboratively develop solutions that will transform our world.