In 2000, when the human genome was unraveled, expectations ran high. The mapping of the human genome allowed us to identify the genes that encode who we are and their role in health and disease. By now, we know that genetic predisposition does not tell everything. External factors play a role in more than seventy percent of all chronic diseases. We know that exposure to air pollution - particles in the air such as dust, dirt, soot, and smoke – plays a role. But also our lifestyle affects our health: what we eat, whether we smoke, whether we exercise and if we’re experiencing an unusual amount of stress.
Measuring the exposome
The totality of exposures that individuals experience over the course of their lives and how those exposures affect their health, is defined as the exposome. Within the Utrecht Exposome Hub, no less than 45 researchers from different research areas, together with partners such as TNO, RIVM and Nutricia Research, will investigate the exposome and map the influences on our health. “We still know too little of what keeps us healthy or makes us sick”, explains Roel Vermeulen, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome Science and co-chair of the Utrecht Exposome Hub. “Of those seventy percent of the diseases, of which we know that the environment plays a role, we understand perhaps about half. If we want to increase the chance that people, we need to know how the other half works as well.”
The hub will measure the exposome in two ways. From the outside, by measuring the influence of external factors. And from the inside, by searching within our bodies for biological footprints. This combination is unique according to Marc Bonten, Professor of Molecular Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases, who leads the hub together with Roel Vermeulen. "One of the big unknowns that we pay special attention to in this hub, is the interaction with the microbiome, the bacteria in our intestines and respiratory. Focusing on the microbiome, in addition to the metabolome and proteome, is what makes the Utrecht Exposome Hub a forerunner in the field of exposome research.”
Measuring someone's exposome is much more complex than mapping the genome, knows Vermeulen. "There is not one single method that can measure every factor, as is the case in genetic research. The exposome is also variable over time, in contrast to the genome. This requires interdisciplinary research in which we use new technological developments from a variety of fields, such as sensors, wearables, spatial models and (omics-) methods with which we can investigate the functioning of the entire genome in a cell, tissue or organ.”
Together with board members Dick Heederik (Veterinary Medicine) and Rick Grobbee (UMC Utrecht), the chairs are in the process of setting up a facility in the Julius Center of the UMC Utrecht. “The facility will become as a physical place from where both researchers and partners will collaborate. The facility will thus play a key role in jointly solving important road blocks“, explains Vermeulen. “New techniques and tools must become immediately visible and accessible to our community. This way we hope the hub will accelerate innovation and collaboration."