Discovering Oxysterols in Plasma: A Window on the Metabolome

While the proteome defines the expressed gene products, the metabolome results from reactions controlled by such gene products. Plasma represents an accessible “window” to the metabolome both in regard of availability and content. The wide range of the plasma metabolome, in terms of molecular diversity and abundance, makes its comprehensive analysis challenging. Here we demonstrate an analytical method designed to target one region of the metabolome, that is, oxysterols. Since the discovery of their biological activity as ligands to nuclear receptors there has been a reawakening of interest in oxysterols and their analysis. In addition, the oxysterols, 24S- and 27-hydroxycholesterol, are currently under investigation as potential biomarkers associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis; widespread analysis of these lipids in clinical studies will require the development of robust, sensitive and rapid analytical techniques. In this communication we present results of an investigation of the oxysterols content of human plasma using a newly developed high-performance liquid chromatography−mass spectrometry (HPLC−MS) method incorporating charge-tagging and high-resolution MS. The method has allowed the identification in plasma of monohydroxylated cholesterol molecules, 7α-, 24S-, and 27-hydroxycholesterol; the cholestenetriol 7α,27-dihydroxycholesterol; and 3β-hydroxycholest-5-en-27-oic acid and its metabolite 3β,7α-dihydroxycholest-5-en-27-oic acid. The methodology described is also applicable for the analysis of other sterols in plasma, that is, cholesterol, 7-dehydrocholesterol, and desmosterol, as well as cholesterol 5,6-<i>seco-</i>sterols and steroid hormones. Although involving derivatization, sample preparation is straightforward and chromatographic analysis rapid (17 min), while the MS method offers high sensitivity (ng/mL of sterol in plasma, or pg on-column) and specificity. The methodology is suitable for targeted metabolomic analysis of sterols, oxysterols, and steroid hormones opening a “window” to view this region of the metabolome.