Studies of the exposome, or the total exposures a person experiences over a lifetime, are crucial to the future of public health research and to health outcomes, according to Yale University Department of Environmental Health Sciences Chair Vasilis Vasiliou, Ph.D. He spoke at the “Lifetime Exposures and Human Health: The Exposome” symposium, which he co-chaired with colleague Caroline Johnson, Ph.D.
The April 19 meeting brought together experts, including two NIEHS grantees, who are well-versed in collecting and analyzing data on the exposome. The speakers presented new technologies and software being developed to support such studies.
“Exposome research data challenges cut across statistics, computer science, biomedicine, and public health,” said NIEHS Division of Extramural Research and Training Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., in her keynote address.
Collman emphasized the benefits to public health of advancing this complex field. “To unravel the underlying mechanisms of disease, it is critical to understand both a person’s environmental exposure history, which is highly variable and dynamic through a lifetime, and the timing of those exposures,” she said.
To support innovative studies in this area, there are new grant opportunities. Collman explained that children’s health researchers who want to expand their projects to include exposure analysis can seek funding through the NIEHS Children’s Health Exposure Analysis Resource program.
New technologies and applications
Patel described his work to build a search engine that finds both environmental and clinical, or phenotypic, factors associated with disease and health. His equation, P equals G plus E, captures the notion that phenotypes result from the interaction of genes and environment. “We are great at G investigation,” said Patel, emphasizing the need for high-throughput methods to study the influence of E.
Metabolomics offers promising approach
Jones described an earlier lack of success using standard intervention methods to study oxidative stress, which involves the body’s efforts to neutralize harmful free radicals. Using metabolomics, or the study of small molecule metabolites in biological systems, Jones analyzed chemicals in human plasma to obtain exposure data.
Toby Athersuch, Ph.D., from Imperial College London, also discussed metabolomics, which offers an overview of the biochemical events that affect the living system as a whole. By tracking metabolite levels and mapping them to their biochemical pathways, scientists can better understand how factors — including genes, nutrition, and medication — influence health. This close-up perspective also aids in characterizing human exposure to environmental stressors.
David Grant, Ph.D., from the University of Connecticut, shared approaches to identifying unknown compounds in metabolic analysis, in his talk, “High-Throughput Structure Identification for Metabolome and Exposome Analysis: How Can We Get There?”
We have entered the exposome
International and interdisciplinary collaboration will promote exposome research within environmental health disciplines, Collman said. Johnson also reflected on the team-oriented nature of exposomics, with contributions from exposure scientists, epidemiologists, analytical chemists, and bioinformatics specialists.
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., summed it up in her video presentation. “We’ve gone from studying one chemical at a time, to studying all environmental exposures, including chemical mixtures, infections, diet, and even lifestyle, and studying them across the entire life cycle,” she said. “In short, we’ve entered the exposome.”
(Wendy Anson, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)