Featured Researchers

Wassim Labaki, MD, MS

Wassim Labaki, MD, MS

Please describe the research questions of your lab.

I am interested in the study of plasma and bronchoalveolar lavage fluid metabolomics in individuals with COPD as it relates to:

  • COPD phenotypes: COPD is a highly heterogeneous condition with regards to its clinical manifestations (e.g. frequent vs. infrequent exacerbators, airway-predominant vs. emphysema-predominant disease). The biological underpinnings of this heterogeneity are not fully understood and the study of metabolomics profiles associated with these phenotypes could provide new insights.
  • COPD progression: In addition to the heterogeneity of clinical COPD phenotypes, disease progression is also highly variable. I am interested in identifying metabolic pathways associated with accelerated lung function decline as well as progression of emphysema and functional small airways disease on chest computed tomography using analytic imaging techniques such as Parametric Response Mapping.
  • COPD therapies: understanding how the metabolome of COPD patients changes in response to beneficial pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic interventions may help identify novel therapeutic targets.     

What genetics/genomics techniques do you utilize in your lab?

My work is focused on analysis of metabolomics data generated from liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy techniques. 

Describe a key technique/assay/instrument utilized in your lab, and what novel insights does it bring to your research question?

Running targeted metabolomics assays (e.g. examining the kynurenine pathway of tryptophan metabolism) based on results of untargeted metabolomics analyses not only guides biomarker discovery and validation, but also helps elucidate important pathogenic mechanisms.  

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a scientist/physician?

In college, I studied the effects of various chemical functionalization methods on the stability of silicone chips in blood to simulate their potential as drug delivery devices. During this project, which was my introduction to research, I learned how to formulate hypotheses, design experiments, analyze data and collaborate with peers. The whole experience was so rewarding that I decided to combine my aspirations to become a physician with my newfound passion for research. 

In your opinion, what is one of the most important discoveries in the field of respiratory illness/disease/function that was dependent on genomics or similar techniques?

The molecular characterization of lung tumors has been a major advance in thoracic oncology. The identification of genetic mutations in non-small cell lung cancer (such as those involving the epidermal growth factor receptor and anaplastic lymphoma kinase) have led to the development of targeted therapies with a resulting significant decrease in lung cancer mortality rates over the last few years. Although much remains to be learned, this example highlights the potential and feasibility of personalized medicine approaches in the treatment of lung cancer which remains the leading cause of cancer deaths.  

Briefly describe your favorite publication involving genomics/omics that you were involved with in general-audience terms.

In an analysis of serum metabolomics in the Subpopulations and Intermediate Outcome Measures in COPD Study (SPIROMICS), we found that reduced concentrations of many amino acids were independently associated with a higher incidence of moderate and severe respiratory exacerbations (PMID: 31388056). These amino acids included tryptophan and the branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine). Unlike most amino acids, tryptophan contributes minimally to protein synthesis as more than 95% of it is metabolized down the kynurenine pathway which has important effects on the immune system. The branched-chain amino acids are collectively important for muscle health which is known to be compromised in patients with COPD. These initial findings warrant further exploration at the intersection of metabolism, immunology and body composition.

What is your favorite aspect of ATS?

The best part of the ATS International Conference is most certainly the people, whether it involves discussing your science with leaders in the field, meeting potential collaborators or even catching up with old friends! Beyond the International Conference, ATS is for me a year-long engagement in the missions of the Society’s various committees and working groups such as the Proteomics and Metabolomics Working Group (within the Section on Genetics and Genomics) and the Assembly on Clinical Problems Program Committee, Journal Club Committee and Early Career Working Group.  

How could your research assist scientists and clinicians in other assemblies at ATS?

Metabolomics remains understudied in pulmonary medicine compared to other fields like cardiology and oncology. Furthermore, even within pulmonary medicine, metabolomics lags behind other omics sciences. Therefore, I hope that metabolomics research in respiratory diseases will continue to grow over the coming years. However, the study of metabolomics does not exist in vacuum and can only reach its full potential when combined with other disciplines such as genomics, transcriptomics, proteomics, epigenetics, bioinformatics, epidemiology and the study of the microbiome. I cannot think of a better forum than ATS to foster such collaborations in our collective quest to understand the complexity of respiratory diseases and improve the lives of people affected by them.   


Please include your email address or lab website to share with potential collaborators!