Rick Dunn

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Professor Warwick (Rick) Dunn

Short Biography

Professor Warwick (Rick) Dunn holds a chair in Analytical and Clinical Metabolomics at the University of Birmingham. He graduated from the University of Hull with a BSc (Hons) degree in Analytical Chemistry and Toxicology and a PhD in collaboration with BP Chemicals focussed on the development of interfaces to couple mass spectrometry to chemical process plants for online monitoring. After his PhD he worked in a number of analytical chemistry roles in industry (Croda Chemicals and Huntingdon Life Sciences) and academia (Rothamsted and University of Sheffield) before moving to the University of Manchester in 2003 to work as a post-doctoral researcher focused on metabolomics in the group of Professor Douglas Kell and subsequently in the group of Professor Roy Goodacre. He obtained a lectureship in 2011 at the University of Manchester and moved to a lectureship at the University of Birmingham in 2013. His research is focused on two areas (1) the development of new analytical tools and methods to enhance data quality, efficiency of metabolite annotation, coverage of detectable metabolites and sample collection strategies and (2) the application of untargeted and targeted metabolomics to the study of metabolism across the life course in humans including pre-birth, ageing, endocrinology, inflammatory and immune diseases and cancers. His career goals are to make metabolomics a standard resource applied in biological research and to train the next generation of metabolomics researchers.

Expert Opinion

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

My path in to metabolomics started from the analytical chemistry aspects which was my academic background (both my BSc and PhD were analytical chemistry/mass spectrometry focussed). Analytical chemistry developments were a significant early driver of metabolomics. I was employed in a small mass spectrometry facility in the School of Animal and Plants Sciences at the University of Sheffield and there was a desire to acquire data on a wide range of metabolites in tomatoes (all metabolomics studies should derive from the biological question). I had recently seen a talk by Doug Kell and Roy Goodacre (who I later went to work for) on the use of Direct Infusion Mass Spectrometry (DIMS) for a similar application and so we developed an experimental strategy to do this on a TOF instrument. This was in 1999 and before any significant metabolomics papers had been published. I am celebrating 20 great years in metabolomics this year and am glad that serendipity pushed me in to metabolomics.

What have you been working on recently?

The Analytical and Clinical Metabolomics group which I lead has a focus on two areas, one is analytical chemistry development and the other is biological/clinical applications, both have metabolomics as a core. The analytical developments have focused on improving our abilities to annotate and identify metabolites to improve the biological understanding we acquire from untargeted metabolomics datasets. A second focussed analytical area has been in sample collection developments, for example through dried blood spot (DBS) collection, tear collection and their analysis applying untargeted metabolomics; DBS has a promising future in untargeted metabolomics studies as it already has for targeted metabolite assays. I have been working on a number of clinical projects, mainly through Phenome Centre Birmingham, and with clinical collaborators including on adrenal insufficiency/excess, idiopathic intracranial hypertension, liver transplantation, vitamin A toxicity, acute kidney injury and childhood metabolic insufficiencies during cardiac surgery. These are but a few of the diversity of studies where we provide metabolism/metabolomics expertise. Some studies are focused on understanding pathophysiological mechanisms and some are focused on stratified medicine applications to improve the provision of healthcare through stratification of the population based on risk prognosis, diagnosis and early biomarkers of disease onset and progression. I strongly believe that metabolites have an important role to play in healthcare systems today and in the future.

During your career you have worked in both industry and academia; what are the main differences working in these environments? Do the skills gained through your experience in industry benefit the academic process?

You are correct, my early career was mainly spent working for companies like BP Chemicals and Croda Chemicals and contract research organisations like Huntingdon Life Sciences. However, the last 16 years have all been spent in academia. Academia and industry are different in relation to their objectives, industry is obviously product and financially motivated and although financial appropriateness is required in academia there are also other objectives related to teaching, advancing science and societal impact. I enjoyed working in both for different reasons. Industry was very much a 9-5 job whereas academia is not a 9-5 job if you want to push science forward. Industry has defined objectives and timelines whereas academia can provide freedom and less constraints on timelines in pushing science forward. Learning and acknowledging that academia and industry are different, that they have different objectives and in applying skills developed in both have helped my academic career; for example, knowing how to develop business plans in industry has helped me develop project plans in academia. For early career researchers, I always recommend internships or placements in industry to ‘test the waters’; I manage an undergraduate placement programme in Birmingham and after 3-6 months all students understand the differences between academia and industry and all finish the placement year with a clear idea of what they would like to do next and whether academia or industry would be the best working environment for them.

You are the Director and co-founder of Birmingham Metabolomics Training Centre (BMTC); what was your rationale for starting the centre? What advantages are there in undertaking the training courses in the early stages of a career?

The teaching and research components in academia are viewed differently with teaching often viewed as a lesser requirement. I believe both are as important, am passionate about both and I want to develop the next generation of scientists in biosciences, analytical chemistry and metabolomics. BMTC developed from some small funding from ELIXIR-UK and was co-founded by Mark Viant, Ralf Weber, Cate Winder and myself. The rationale was to provide a greater volume of training courses for the metabolomics community as well to scientists who want to use metabolomics in their core research. This rationale derived from a questionnaire in 2015 which demonstrated the lack of training courses globally. There are many advantages to our courses for early-career researchers. We offer face-to-face courses which allow the attendee to develop their skills with hands-on approaches and be reassured that they are doing the right things in areas including how to calibrate, tune and use LC-MS instruments or how to extract tissue samples. We also offer online courses which have a wider reach; for example, we operate a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) twice each year as an introductory course to metabolomics which is free and more than 10,000 people from around the world have registered for the course. We want as many courses to be free for early career scientists and so have developed free courses like the MOOC but also regularly approach funders to provide bursaries for courses.

What resources would you recommend for early-career members who want to further their knowledge in metabolomics, from hands-on analyses to data processing?

In the last 2-3 years there has been an observable increase in the number of online and face-to-face training courses available in Europe, North America and Asia and this is great to see. There are more and more online resources available from videos on YouTube to training course videos to free online courses. These are always a great and cheap way to learn. For those who want hands-on experience of metabolomics then attending a face-to-face training course is best. The workshops at the annual Metabolomics Society are also a great to learn from the experts. Another opportunity is to undertake a placement at a metabolomics laboratory for 3-6 months, this is something I do 1-2 times each year as it allows training in a wide range of activities performed in the metabolomics workflow and practicing on a chosen application. The Training committee of the Metabolomics Society led by Christophe Junot are generating a list of available training resources currently and so keep an eye on the Metabolomics Society website for this.

You are also the Director of Mass Spectrometry for the Phenome Centre Birmingham (PCB); what resources does PCB currently offer, and how do collaborations with industrial partners benefit accessibility to new technologies?

One of the pulls to the University of Birmingham was to develop a large metabolomics facility for biomedical/clinical research. Mark Viant, who is Executive Director, along with David Adams (and some significant financial help from the MRC and university as funders) helped to push this to reality. PCB offers a collaborative fee-for service in biomedical/clinical/toxicology research where metabolomics is a part of the overall study. We work with our collaborators (they are not customers in our eyes!) from experimental design, through data collection and statistical analysis to assistance with biological interpretation. From an analytical point of view, we offer untargeted metabolomics applying UHPLC-MS and NMR spectroscopy as well as semi-targeted assays (e.g. Biocrates p400 kit assays) and targeted assays (e.g. one carbon metabolism). PCB (as well as BMTC) has close collaborations with scientific instrument companies, from my research this is with Thermo Scientific. These collaborations help develop cutting-edge instruments and software for the companies, provides academic advice on the major scientific challenges in metabolomics for the company and provides access to cutting-edge technologies for academia. These should always operate as a win-win for both parties. Scientific collaborations with other industries are also scientifically and financially important from an academic and industry perspective.

How do you see translation of your research to an improvement of human health and what is the biggest challenge translating it?

My group’s research follows different objectives as discussed above. However, even in early stages of any research I am considering the translation aspects. From analytical chemistry research this translation may be in to general operation of PCB or more diverse, for example, how can DBS be applied in routine biomedical/clinical projects. From the biomedical/clinical research angle, the identification of metabolic targets for intervention (drug, diet, exercise) or for biomarkers for stratified medicine applications are the most important. There are opportunities for metabolites to be used in clinical practice and my collaborative research has identified potential biomarkers from discovery and subsequent validation studies to be used in a number of diseases. However, this is the easy part because translation needs to involve a range of disciplines away from science and this can take several years. For example, healthcare costs can be important because you could have developed the perfect biomarker but if it costs £1000 per sample then not many healthcare systems would apply this.

What are your recommendations for people getting started in analytical and clinical metabolomics?

I was an analytical chemist who fell in to the metabolomics discipline. Sometimes these things happen and I now look back and think this was one of the best things in my life. For all of the excellent researchers already out there survey the applications you want to apply metabolomics in and learn more about these through courses, seminars and internships/lab visits. The important aspect here is that metabolomics is primarily a tool in biological research and researchers should focus on the application more than the development of metabolomics because the application areas have a larger and more diverse range of funding sources. Also think about what you want to be remembered for and along with the application area this allows you to develop a plan on how to proceed. For me, one of the main areas is pushing forward metabolite annotation capabilities, an area where funding is lacking!

See also