Meta-Analysis Reveals Both the Promises and the Challenges of Clinical Metabolomics

Heidi E. Roth, Robert Powers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Clinical metabolomics is a rapidly expanding field focused on identifying molecular biomarkers to aid in the efficient diagnosis and treatment of human diseases. Variations in study design, metabolomics methodologies, and investigator protocols raise serious concerns about the accuracy and reproducibility of these potential biomarkers. The explosive growth of the field has led to the recent availability of numerous replicate clinical studies, which permits an evaluation of the consistency of biomarkers identified across multiple metabolomics projects. Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death and has the lowest five-year survival rate primarily due to the lack of an early diagnosis and the limited treatment options. Accordingly, PDAC has been a popular target of clinical metabolomics studies. We compiled 24 PDAC metabolomics studies from the scientific literature for a detailed meta-analysis. A consistent identification across these multiple studies allowed for the validation of potential clinical biomarkers of PDAC while also highlighting variations in study protocols that may explain poor reproducibility. Our meta-analysis identified 10 metabolites that may serve as PDAC biomarkers and warrant further investigation. However, 87% of the 655 metabolites identified as potential biomarkers were identified in single studies. Differences in cohort size and demographics, p-value choice, fold-change significance, sample type, handling and storage, data collection, and analysis were all factors that likely contributed to this apparently large false positive rate. Our meta-analysis demonstrated the need for consistent experimental design and normalized practices to accurately leverage clinical metabolomics data for reliable and reproducible biomarker discovery.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number3992
Issue number16
StatePublished - Aug 2022


  • NMR
  • clinical metabolomics
  • mass spectrometry
  • meta-analysis
  • pancreatic cancer biomarkers

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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