The exposome is the missing link between genetics and health

Roel Vermeulen appointed Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome Analysis

The Executive Board has appointed Roel Vermeulen to the post of Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome Analysis  at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (IRAS) and UMC Utrecht as of 1 November 2017. The board would like to congratulate Roel with his appointment!

Roel Vermeulen
Roel Vermeulen

Vermeulen (1970) studied Environmental Hygiene in Wageningen, and earned his PhD at Utrecht University in 2001 on his study of the health risks in the rubber industry. After six years studying the relationship between environmental factors, molecular changes and the development of cancer at the National Cancer Institute in the US, he became a researcher at Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht. There he led a research group in the field of environmental and molecular epidemiology. In 2016, he was invited to be a guest professor at Imperial College London. Since 2013, he has led the I3CARE International Exposome Center and the Living Environment Innovation Lab at Utrecht University.

Important piece of the puzzle
When researchers unravelled the human DNA code 15 years ago, expectations ran high, as Vermeulen explains. “We thought we would be able to explain diseases and discover bespoke treatments. But now we know that it’s not that simple. For most chronic illnesses, we know that a genetic predisposition is a risk factor, but we often don’t have a good explanation for why one person gets sick, while another stays healthy. We also don’t understand why some patients respond to treatment, while others don’t. So we’re missing an important piece of the puzzle needed to provide a good answer to individual health questions. The exposome is the missing link between genetics and health.”

Pathogenic role of the environment
The environment in which we live has a major influence on our health. “Whether you’re talking about the physical environment, such as exposure to air pollution or the climate, our social environment or our behaviour, all of these non-genetic factors play an important role in the development and prognoses of diseases.” According to Vermeulen, this is not a new insight, but the pathogenic role of the environment has received relatively little attention in scientific research. “That’s unusual, because the quality of the living environment is the fourth contributing factor to disease, after smoking, unhealthy diets and lack of exercise. Around 6% of the disease burden in the Netherlands is related to the environment.”

Measuring the exposome
The exposome includes every factor that determines sickness and health that is not part of the person’s genome. Measuring someone’s ‘exposome’ is far more difficult than measuring their genome, as Vermeulen explains. “There is no 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 a multi-disciplinary approach in which we use new technological developments from a variety of fields, such as sensors, spatial models and omics methods to study the function of the entire genome in a cell, tissue or organ.”

Enormous amount of information
Devices such as smartphones, interactive apps and social media make it possible to constantly follow our behaviour and collect information about our health or feelings of stress or contentment. Using GPS data and sensors, this information can then be coupled to measurements from our physical environment. “That provides an enormous amount of information about events that could influence our health. In so doing, we hope to be able to put the entire puzzle together.”