Mark Viant

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Professor Mark Viant


Short Biography

Mark Viant is Professor of Metabolomics in the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham, UK, Executive Director of Phenome Centre Birmingham and co-Founder of Michabo Health Science. Mark is also a past President of the international Metabolomics Society. His research interests focus on developing and applying metabolomics in the field of human and environmental toxicology, with the goal to find novel solutions for industry and regulators in chemical safety science. He is particularly fascinated by chemical and nanomaterial toxicology in invertebrate model organisms and the translation of metabolomics based ‘discovery’ research into mechanistically based tools for regulatory toxicology. Mark has co-authored over 170 publications and his work has been recognised by the award of a 2015 Lifetime Honorary Fellowship of the international Metabolomics Society.

Expert Opinion

When and why did you start using metabolomics in your investigations?

I started in early 2002, while a postdoc at UC Davis. My background was somewhat unusual, with a PhD in Chemical Physics (gas phase spectroscopy) and then somewhat of a career change (or as a colleague once said, a “re-treading of my knowledge”) to biochemical toxicology, at that time I was applying in vivo 31P NMR spectroscopy to study the metabolic responses of aquatic organisms to toxicants. This approach could detect only a few P-containing metabolites, albeit in living animals. Having read a few pioneering papers on metabolomics, I realised I had the right background knowledge at the right time to quickly transition my research into 1H NMR based metabolomics. I was so impressed by what we could discover using an untargeted metabolomics approach that I pushed very hard at helping to establish the field of environmental metabolomics with my colleagues around the globe.

What have you been working on recently?

In the last three years I’ve focused solely on leading a team of superb early-career scientists applying metabolomics to regulatory toxicology, adding human toxicology to my earlier focus on environmental toxicology. Without doubt this has been the most exciting period of my career to date because we are trying to make a positive difference outside of academia, to genuinely help to transform international procedures for assessing the safety of chemicals. Every project in my group is now co-funded by a company or a chemical regulator. I like this way of working, applying state-of-the-art science to real, applied questions.

As the past president of Metabolomics Society, how do you view the progress of the society? What accomplishments, changes or developments are you most proud of achieving?

It probably isn’t surprising to anyone that I think very highly of the Metabolomics Society, of past and present Boards of Directors and of course the Officers (President, Secretary and Treasurer). It takes a lot of commitment and time to do that job well. Jules and the current Board are doing a great job, responding to several challenges and navigating a course to continue to grow benefits for the international metabolomics community.

As for my two years in the hot seat, forming the EMN was most certainly the most rewarding change I brought about. I draw parallels to lighting the touch paper on a rocket!

Your research has been focused on development and application of metabolomics in human and environmental toxicology; what is the most challenging part of using metabolomics for this purpose?

Unfortunately this is an easy question: metabolite identification. It’s been the thorn in our side, across the whole field of metabolomics since this discipline began. Scientists want to know molecular mechanisms and pathways, they want to discover metabolic biomarkers, they want to integrate metabolic knowledge with gene expression data; this all requires robust metabolite identification. At last though we are about to see relatively rapid progress in metabolite assays that in addition to providing the usual untargeted measurements (of unknowns) includes the definitive identification of many hundreds of metabolites - called semi-targeted metabolomics. It’s a timely combination of new hardware, software and metabolite libraries that is enabling this transformation.

You and your research team have been collaborating with various organisations and companies (European Chemicals Agency, Joint Research Centre, AstraZeneca, Unilever, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Beckman Coulter to name a few…) – how do these collaborations benefit the academic process?

For scientists such as myself who thrive on translational research, the short answer is that many of these collaborations (with the chemical companies and regulators, etc.) define the problem space for us to tackle and find solutions. It’s both exciting and enjoyable. We also have several important collaborations with instrument manufacturers, which bring other benefits to our academic research (see here for a joint piece written by Dr Iain Mylchreest, Thermo Fisher Scientific, and myself on this topic:

What is your advice for young researchers who are interested in translating their metabolomics research to toxicology applications?

Chase your dreams. There is huge scope for making a beneficial impact on society. Chemicals obviously play a vital role in all aspects of our lives, but as history (and unfortunately current news) has shown they are not all safe. We cannot afford to allow the deleterious effects of some chemicals to continue to cause death and disease across the globe. So get involved, increase the focus on toxicology in metabolomics conferences and also metabolomics in toxicology conferences. Develop case studies that are bullet proof. Take your evidence and enthusiasm to the chemical industries, to the regulators, drive change. As I’ve learnt in the last couple of years, it’s not that the regulators are not interested in metabolomics. It’s simply that their day jobs don’t allow them the luxury to explore state-of-the-art science to improve chemical safety science. That is the job of researchers to drive this change in partnership with industry, regulators and law makers. And for those interested in this area, drop me an email if you want to join this crusade!

When speaking about applying metabolomics to toxicology, it is difficult not to mention its potential to Replace, Reduce and Refine animal testing given a growing number of publications on this topic. How effective do you think metabolomics could be for this purpose?

In combination with state-of-the-art in vitro test systems, very effective. To read more on this, see the report from a recent European Commission organised scientific conference that sought to engage the scientific community and relevant stakeholders in discussions on how to utilise metabolomics and other approaches to reduce animal testing (

You and two other colleagues from University of Birmingham (Prof John Colbourne and Prof Ben Brown) have recently started new entrepreneurship named Michabo Health Science which focuses on application of omics (including metabolomics) to regulatory toxicology. What is your vision for this? Do you think that using omics to derive mechanistic information could support challenging regulatory assessments of thousands of chemicals? How interested are the regulators in using omics?

This new business endeavour provides us a more effective route for providing solutions to our stakeholder’s problem spaces. Businesses and government organisations typically have mechanisms in place to work with other businesses, not with academics. Michabo Health Science provides us a vehicle to translate our science more effectively. I absolutely believe that molecular science will transform chemical safety for the many tens of thousands of chemicals used by consumers and industry. It’s not all about deriving mechanistic information though, nor all about omics. The chemical safety science problem space is diverse – and the solutions obviously need to be tailored accordingly. Where untargeted multi-omics technologies undoubtedly have an important role to play is in the discovery of molecular biomarker signatures that are predictive of a range of toxicity pathways. An immediate regulatory application that our business is exploring with the European Chemicals Agency is chemical grouping. Potentially a further application is for deriving health based guidance values (i.e. maximum exposure levels of chemicals) based on metabolic response data. And yes, forwarding looking scientists in the regulatory agencies are most definitely interested in omics, for example see These are truly exciting times for metabolomics.

See also