Big Ideas

Mohit Jain, M.D., Ph.D.

The world of medicine is amid a paradigm-shift, increasingly concerned not just with active and short-term treatment but also with how to better predict risk and make the earliest diagnosis. An emphasis on prevention and risk prediction allows cancer to be avoided totally, or if diagnosed earlier, allows treatments to be more effective. We know sometimes lifestyles changes, such as tobacco avoidance, can affect our risk for cancer. For example, non-smokers have a far lower risk of lung cancer than smokers. While many scientists focus on developing cures or therapies for cancer and other diseases that attack the body, Dr. Mohit Jain of the University of California, San Diego, has an approach that focuses on prevention.

Jain uses mass spectrometry – a technology that allows us to analyze thousands of different small molecules in a single experiment – to understand how the chemistry of a particular cell is changed to produce a disease. His goal is to be able to analyze a droplet of blood and determine an individual’s risk for developing cancer decades in advance and to understand lifestyle modifications that could protect us from developing cancer.

While it typically takes more than 100 minutes to analyze a blood sample comprehensively, Jain’s lab has redesigned specialized mass-spectrometry technology to be able to accomplish the same analysis in less than a minute. These new “rapid” mass spectrometers allow for study of 10,000 to 100,000 people at a single time. Blood collected years before from a group of people who have consented to provide feedback on their health over time is analyzed to see if there are any molecular signals that are different between people who developed cancer in the present time and those who didn’t. When analyzed, these blood samples can begin to provide insight into who is at highest risk for developing cancer or other diseases, even decades in advance.

Jain said he believes that grants from the V Foundation are vital because they provide young scientists with funding at critical points in their research.

According to Jain, the vast majority of risk for human disease comes from the world around us – what we eat, smell, smoke, the microbes in our gut, the interaction between our brain our heart, etc. – while genetics provides a minor risk. Analyzing blood allows us to view how our environment affects us individually, and in turn, map out the non-genetic causes of disease.

“Ultimately, what we want to be able to do is take a single drop of blood from someone who’s 40 years old or 50 years old and say, ‘You’re at an elevated risk for lung cancer over your life because you have this molecule in your blood,” he said. “And this one molecule comes from this microbe in your gut or this molecule comes from your diet. And for whatever reason, when you eat this particular food, your body produces this molecule that increases your risk of getting cancer.” The idea is to be able to to change those microbes in the gut or change what we eat to prevent us from developing cancer (or another disease) over the next 40 years. It’s about understanding why we get these diseases. “We still don’t understand why people get cancer, and that drives me nuts,” he said.

Jain credits the V Foundation grant for getting his lab this far. “When I started my faculty job, the first grant I ever received was the V Foundation grant. We never would have been able to obtain funding for our projects from the National Institutes of Health given the very high-risk, high-reward nature of the discovery-based science.” His research started with cancer and now promises a potential solution for other diseases, too. “We went from studying a couple hundred cancer cells in a dish, which is what the V Foundation grant was about, to now studying hundreds of thousands of people in a single experiment.” He said he believes that grants from the V Foundation are vital because they provide young scientists with funding at critical points in their research. “I’m incredibly grateful to the V Foundation for supporting us early on.”

Jain refers to himself as a “cautious optimist,” believing in three to four years, we’ll be able to implement the findings of his research by offering new perspectives and lifestyle choices that can prevent disease. “Let’s just say, we’ll be disappointed if it takes longer than that,” said Jain.