Metabolomics and Autism: Can Cross-linked Polyamine HPLC Columns Change Lives?

Chromatography has the ability to impact lives more than many think. Brian Rivera discovers this through his pursuit for more autism research for his son, Micah.

By: Brian Rivera, Bioseparations Product Manager

From PFAS in drinking water, to quantitation of sugar in pharmaceutical formulations, the vast array of applications across multiple industries that require HPLC, GC, and SPE is remarkable. So, sometimes you don’t have to look very hard to see how chromatography influences your life.

Research on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) relies on HPLC, and this directly impacts my life quite significantly.

My son, Micah, was diagnosed with autism last year. I found it difficult to come to terms with it, even though the CDC identifies 1 in 68 children as having ASD. I didn’t want to believe that my son was on the spectrum. I was convinced the speech delay and repetitive actions were all just a part of being a boy. But as he grew up, it became more apparent. The meltdowns. The sensory issues. It was clear my son had autism.

Like any scientist, I tried to “science” it away. As rational, logical thinkers, I think any analytical chemist gravitates towards the sciences to help cope with things. My wife and I did a commercially available genetic test, and I downloaded both our genomes. I used several online tools to see if we were carriers of known SNP’s that correlated to autism. I plumbed PubMed to look at the latest research. The microbiome seemed to be where the latest trends were coming from. Of course, gut microbiota is trendy in general so it’s no wonder that autism research efforts would be focused around that.

With all this emerging research, part of me considered going back to the lab, and even back to grad school. I wanted to know more—I wanted answers. I felt I had to do something, to contribute what I could to help advance the research being done on my son’s disorder.

Then, during my nightly pursuit of research, I decided to look and see what research relied on HPLC products. I was curious—what can I say!  I came across an interesting paper, “Reversal of Autism-Like Behaviors and Metabolism in Adult Mice with Single-Dose Antipurinergic Therapy,” published by Dr. Robert Naviaux’s Lab at UC San Diego.

Naviaux and his team looked at low doses of suramin and its effect on behavior and metabolism in mice. Using metabolomic analysis, the key pathway was determined to be purine metabolism(1). They’re even expanding this work to randomized clinical trials with human children, and is showing promising results.

The primary method used in the Naviaux Lab for metabolite analysis is Hydrophilic Interaction Chromatography (HILIC) MS/MS and uses one of Phenomenex’s products, Luna® Amino.

Untargeted and targeted metabolomics are applications I have been keen on since my days in Phenomenex Technical Support. It’s a difficult chromatographic separation, so I won’t go into the details too much, but in short, we use HILIC to separate out very polar metabolites (sometimes, hundreds of them) for analysis by tandem mass spectrometry. The classic metabolomics screen typically uses Luna Amino in HILIC mode. The unique selectivity of the amino phases (due to hydrogen accepting that occurs at high pH when the amino phase is deprotonated) gives the optimal selectivity for many difficult to separate polar metabolites.

Even more, Phenomenex has been working closely with our fellow Danaher associates at SCIEX on microflow columns (check out this poster here! Shout out to Khatereh Motamedchaboki and Bal Ubhi). The hopes is that this will push the limits of sensitivity and make a difference in expanding autism research.

I know that Phenomenex, as an HPLC column vendor, might seem too far removed from research and development to really think we are making a difference. However, in many ways, Luna Amino offers a unique solution that is helping to advance metabolomics that may have a direct impact on autism treatments.  The small contribution that I’ve given in helping support our products like Luna Amino, in addition to expanding our capabilities with emerging technology like microflow LC, all can assist research that will directly impact lives. If that little extra bit of sensitivity or selectivity with Luna Amino in metabolomics methods can help, even in the slightest, to the quality of data generated in autism research, then I feel like I’ve contributed.

Brian Rivera is a Product Manager for Phenomenex. He is the proud father of Corinne and Micah. When he is not busy as a biologics ZenMaster at Phenomenex, he spends time reading comic books to his daughter and having dance parties with his son.


  1. Naviaux, J C, et al. “Reversal of Autism-like Behaviors and Metabolism in Adult Mice with Single-Dose Antipurinergic Therapy.” Translational Psychiatry, vol. 4, no. 6, 2014, doi:10.1038/tp.2014.33.

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Metabolomics & Autism: Can HPLC Columns Potentially Change Lives?
Article Name
Metabolomics & Autism: Can HPLC Columns Potentially Change Lives?
Phenomenex's very own Brian Rivera, takes a personal look at how chromatography affects his life through autism research in the attempt to help his son.

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