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Environmental Factor, October 2012

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NRC report supports NIEHS vision of the exposome

By Cindy Loose

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Advances in science and new technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for exploring the links between environment and disease, according to a new National Research Council report funded by NIEHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The report, “Exposure Science in the 21st Century: A Vision and A Strategy” (ExpSci21), was released Sept. 7 by the National Academy of Sciences. The report can be purchased in hard cover online or downloaded in full or in summary as a PDF at no charge.

The report outlines several challenges in implementing systematic evaluation of the exposome, but it concludes that careful planning, advanced information management, and a spirit of partnership will help scientists realize that goal. “With focus, good science, and sustained support for research and development,” the report concludes, “exposure science will have a bright future.”

The need and opportunity for exposure information

Traditionally, scientists studying the impact of environment on disease have focused on one exposure at a time. The ExpSci21 report envisions the use of ubiquitous sensing networks to collect personal exposure information on multiple pollutants across scales from individuals to ecosystems and across multiple dimensions of time, in an effort to characterize the totality of exposures throughout the life course, a concept that has been dubbed the exposome.

New technologies can greatly enhance efforts to focus on a systematic evaluation of the totality of exposures over a lifetime, the report emphasized. Emerging tools for exposure assessment, such as those developed by the NIEHS Exposure Biology Program, integrating high-tech sensor technologies, global positioning systems, genomic techniques, and informatics are critical needs for achieving this goal.

The greatest challenge of the past has been too little data on exposures. The challenge of the future will be a massive data wave that will require new ways of analyzing information, said Kirk Smith, Ph.D., chair of the committee of 19 academic researchers who prepared the report. Smith is a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkley. According to the authors, a critical piece of the ExpSci21 vision is the need for a publicly available data infrastructure for sharing and analyzing multi-component exposure information.

Exposure science is playing a fundamental role in many fields of environmental health, but can also be applied to environmental regulation, urban and ecosystem planning and disaster management, the report noted. It envisioned adoption of the concept of an eco-exposome, in which exposure science extends from the point of contact between stressor and receptor, inward to an organism, and outward to the environment.

Realizing the vision

In the near term, exposure science needs to develop strategies to rapidly improve understanding of when, where, and how exposures occur, in addition to their health significance. The report calls for the development of a new exposure infrastructure, such as sensor networks, to help identify knowledge gaps and allow scientists to identify and prioritize the most urgent targets for research, based on both the burden of exposure and the potential for toxicity.

The report urges enhanced multi-agency collaboration. It notes that the report “Toxicity Testing in the 21st Century: A Vision and A Strategy” spurred the development of Tox21, which has made great advances by pooling the resources of NIEHS, NIH, EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Toxicology Program. That model, the report said, could be extended to exposure science and the creation of Exposure21. Such a collaboration, it added, would need to be extended to other federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, U.S. Geological Survey, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

(Cindy Loose is a contract writer with the NIEHS office in Bethesda, Md.)

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