A pioneer in lipidomics: Prof Markus Wenk

Professor Markus Wenk, winner of the 2019 University Research Recognition Award, received the prize for his ground-breaking work studying lipids

Lipids such as cholesterols, triglycerides, and other fats are essential dietary nutrients for humans and other animals, but they also have an involvement in many metabolic diseases like stroke, hypertension, and diabetes. As such, the field of lipidomics is the study of the networks and pathways of cellular lipids in biological systems, with the goal of completely understanding their roles. It involves the identification and quantification of thousands of cellular lipids and their interactions with other lipids, proteins, and other metabolites. 

When describing what first drew him to field of lipidomics, Professor Markus Wenk explained, “For me, I was always interested in reactions that occur at interfaces. In many scientific fields, incredibly interesting things happen at the boundary between two phases. As it happens, in biology, interfaces are often defined by membranes, and membranes are made of lipids.” Thus, after finishing his PhD in Biophysics from the University of Bazel, Prof Wenk embarked on an illustrious career in lipidomics.

For his ground-breaking research, Prof Wenk received the University Research Recognition Award at the NUS University Awards 2019. He stated, “Winning this award, I am extremely delighted and proud, but also grateful that I continue to have the support from NUS to conduct my research”. To any young researchers who would like to be in his shoes one day, he said, “My advice would simply be: enjoy what you do, and do it well.”

A chance career base change

Prof Wenk was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University for several years until a serendipitous holiday to Singapore in 2002 led him to make the decision to move to NUS. “I had the chance to visit Singapore more than 15 years ago. I actually had no intention of looking for a job, but after coming here, I quickly changed my mind,” he revealed. 

Prof Wenk then took up a position as an Assistant Professor in 2004 at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry, and NUS Biological Sciences. After 15 years at NUS, he is now the Provost’s Chair at NUS Medicine, and is the Head of Department for NUS Biochemistry. “What I like about Singapore is that it’s very dynamic in terms of research. It certainly keeps you active,” he said.

Looking back on his career, Prof Wenk stated that what surprises him to this day is how much there is to explore. “With lipidomics, it’s amazing what’s still left to discover. For instance, currently we’re looking at lipids in blood plasma, and we’re able to isolate a particular type of molecule. But what you find is this one type of molecule has hundreds of different but related lipid molecules associated with it in the plasma. So when describing the diversity of lipids in cells we have yet to cover everything – in fact, I think it’s the tip of the iceberg,” he said. 

The fascinating world of lipids

The importance of studying these various lipid molecules is that they define the biochemical mechanisms of lipid-related disease processes, which can ultimately indicate the health of a patient. Prof Wenk explained, “These lipids are at the very downstream end of what happens in a cell, so they are very reflective of a person’s physiological state.” 

Prof Wenk continued, “Lipids give a lot information biologically, because they reveal detailed insights into the changes in cellular function.” However, in the field of lipidomics, there is no current consensus on how to quantify these findings between research groups. This is problematic for laboratories that use different workflows, as they are not able to compare results. As such, Prof Wenk has begun an ambitious project which could shape the field of lipidomics forever. 

“When describing the diversity of lipids in cells we have yet to cover everything – in fact, I think it’s the tip of the iceberg”

“Rather than study disease or complications, one needs to first actually get an idea of healthy baselines,” Prof Wenk explained. His goal with this project is to conclude which lipids are stable in healthy adults and which ones vary by the hour, and to determine how labs from various scientific disciplines might reliably measure each of those. Ultimately, this would lead to a more unified and collaborative lipidomics community who could share standardised data, leading to dramatic advancements in the field. 

Looking at the future of lipidomics, Prof Wenk reflected on how the personal data we generate could be used in tandem with lipidomics research. He said, “Many of us wear fitness trackers which measure simple things like heartrate and number of steps, from which you can infer a lot of information. If there was a tracker which could also measure biochemical data, the possibilities of examining the relationship between physiology and daily rhythms are enormous.”

This idea is too expensive to perform practically at the moment, said Prof Wenk, but he foresees that as lipidomics analysis techniques improve, the cost of measurement will decrease. Eventually he hopes to see cutting-edge lipidomics research combined with smart electronic devices. “I do believe that if one could unite hard biochemical analysis with wearable technology, it would be a game changer,” he remarked.

As confirmation of Singapore’s lipidomics prowess, NUS will be hosting the 8th International Singapore Lipid Symposium (iSLS) from 18 to 20 March 2020. The iSLS is a biennial event organised by Prof Wenk and the Singapore Lipidomics Incubator (SLING) since 2006, and provides a platform for researchers to collaborate and share knowledge. It is now a key event for lipidomics research on the international stage.