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The extremely fit -- 25 Boston Marathon runners -- had tenfold increases in that metabolite after the race. Still other differences in metabolites allowed the researchers to tell which runners had finished in under four hours and which weren't as speedy.
"We have a chemical snapshot of what the more fit person looks like. Now we have to see if making someone's metabolism look like that snapshot, whether or not that's going to improve their performance," says Gerszten, whose ultimate goal is better cardiac care.
Don't expect a pill ever to substitute for a workout -- the new work shows how complicated the body's response to exercise is, says metabolomics researcher Dr. Debbie Muoio of Duke University Medical Center.
But scientists are hunting nutritional compounds that might help tweak metabolic processes in specific ways. For example, Muoio discovered the muscles of diabetic animals lack enough of a metabolite named carnitine, and that feeding them more improved their control of blood sugar. Now, Muoio is beginning a pilot study in 25 older adults with pre-diabetes to see if carnitine supplements might work similarly in people who lack enough.
Next up: With University of Vermont researchers, she's testing how metabolic changes correlate with health measures in a study of people who alternate between a carefully controlled Mediterranean diet and higher-fat diets.
"The long-term hope is you could use this in making our way toward personalized medicine," Muoio says.
Lauran Neergaard covers health and medical issues for The Associated Press in Washington.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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