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Why Exposome is Challenging Research

Why Exposome is Challenging Research

18.10.2016

HELIX is one of the first two projects funded by the European Commission in 2012, launching the FP7 Exposome Research Programme to start mapping the exposome. The research is based on the recognition that major environmental hazards may lead to serious, chronic conditions with large societal and economic costs. HELIX has now entered its' final year, and is building the early life exposome to understand the level of impact of multiple environmental hazards on the individual.

HELIX project is building the early life exposome to understand the level of impact of multiple environmental hazards on the individual

Following the completion of the extensive fieldwork in six birth cohorts (from France, Greece, Lithuania, Norway, Spain and United Kingdom) and three pregnancy panels (France, Norway and Spain) last summer, we are now receiving the first results.

ISGlobal coordinates this innovative project, with a consortium existing of 13 European Partners. The institute is also host to the INMA cohort study, implicated in HELIX, and will harbour the HELIX Database.

Exposure measures have been created for outdoor exposures for a total of 28.000 mother-child pairs in Europe

Exposure measures have been created for outdoor exposures for a total of 28.000 mother-child pairs in Europe. Experts used data from satellite remote sensing, national resources and existing cohort studies, to compare exposure over pregnancy to air pollutants, noise, meteorological factors, natural and built environment in cities. First results suggest that pregnant women with higher education are less likely to be exposed to air pollution and noise, while they also have greater access to green spaces. The level of social participation appears related to healthy urban environments within some European cities, which may impact on the development of their children.

The majority of children carry detectable levels of harmful pesticides in their blood and urines

It is also surprising to find, when investigating exposure to pollutants in a subset of 1.200 children, that the majority of children carry detectable levels of harmful pesticides in their blood and urines. We confirmed that some persistent pesticides such as DDT are still detected in population bio-samples. Modern pesticides, used for pest control at home or in agriculture activities, such as organophosphates are believed to be less persistent, but they have still been detected in 46% of children samples regardless of the European country of origin. We are investigating how dietary patterns such as consumption of organic foods or other lifestyle behaviors might influence exposure loads at the individual levels. It was reassuring to find that urinary cotinine, a marker of passive tobacco smoking, was detected in only 19% of the children. Different exposure patterns were identified across the countries. For instance, the Spanish children from Sabadell, had higher levels of mercury, found in high concentration in seafood, than in other countries of Europe.

Harmonisation of data collected from the six countries is still ongoing, as our team is trying to find common indicators of factors which may not be comparable. We anticipate to start publishing results starting early 2017.

First results suggest that pregnant women with higher education are less likely to be exposed to air pollution and noise

Some of these initial results were presented during the Emory Exposome Summer Course in Atlanta (USA) last June, where HELIX received much interest since the project is providing the most extensive database for real children exposures. Here, a cornerstone to the success of building the exposome was underlined by Gary Miller of the HERCULES Exposome Research Center at Emory University: “By not dedicating a higher level of thought and effort to the role of the environment in health and disease, we are doing a disservice to biology. One half of the equation [genetics] is supremely represented by the field of genetics. A highly organized and functional research domain. The other half of the equation is represented by a hodgepodge of disciplines, few of which communicate with one another.”

For example, metabolomics (traditionally the measuring and analysis of metabolites such as sugars and fats) has a huge potential to serve the completion of the Exposome, to identify unknown biological markers potentially arising from the breakdown of foreign compounds that circulate in our body following diet intake, infection events, drug treatment, pollutant exposures.

Different exposure patterns were identified across the countries. For instance, the Spanish children from Sabadell had higher levels of mercury

Where it comes to interdisciplinary exchanges, we know that Social Scientists are much needed to assess the impact of research translation on policy decisions ‘down the road’ - what are the most appropriate ways to present results on social determinants of environmental exposure to politicians? Discussion on the application of Exposome research has started moving into new directions as well. Including its' potential as a tool for measuring exposures in a holistic manner to understand immune disease outbreaks such as currently is experienced in certain Zika infested regions.

Bioinformatics and Statistics are further key disciplines. A bioinformatic tool has been developed as part of the HELIX remit for the characterisation of multiple environmental factors and their association with different omics biomarkers and disease.

By learning more about the environment-physical health relationship, we hope to contribute to improving preventive disease strategies

The “R” package or “rexposomeis a biomedical informatics tool which facilitates the visualization of the exposome data and its integration with omics data. Large  unstructured  data  collected  through  different technologies  require  advanced  mathematical  analysis and dimension reduction techniques to ease interpretation in interdisciplinary settings. Big Data visualization tools create a bridge between informaticians,  researchers, clinicians, the public and the data. It was recently presented during The Symposium on Bioinformatics (Jornada Nacional de Bioinformática), at the Universitat Politèncica de Valencia, which provides a forum to present and discuss recent research developments in Bioinformatics.

So, in all, by learning more about the environment-physical health relationship, we hope to contribute to improving preventive disease strategies, which leads to lower health costs and a reduction of the environmental burden of disease.

More information

The Exposome: Understanding the Effect of the Environment on Our Health