26 million for research into impact of non-genetic factors on health

Who will be affected by certain chronic diseases, and who will not? For 30 percent that depends on heredity factors, whereas no less than seventy percent is explained by external factors. A Dutch research consortium receives 18 million euros from the prestigious Zwaartekrachtsubsidies to study these external factors. Leiden professor Thomas Hankemeier is one of the applicants for the programme.

Origin of chronic diseases

The consortium will investigate which factors of the exposome are important for health and how these factors work. The exposome consists of factors from daily life such as eating and drinking, the air we breathe, our social interactions and lifestyle choices such as smoking and exercise. The biological response of the individual to these factors is also part of the exposome. Much is still unknown about the exposome, and therefore the development of chronic diseases.

Heart disease and diabetes

Programme leader Roel Vermeulen, professor at Utrecht University and University Medical Center Utrecht: ‘People make all kinds of choices in their daily lives that have a major impact on their health. Thanks to the funding we will be able to map all non-genetic risk factors for the health of Dutch people.’ Much is already known about the human genome, so for the first time the researchers now also want to systematically analyse the human exposome. ‘We know that the burden of disease for people with a chronic disease is largely influenced by the exposome. That is why this funding is so important. We will start with research into the causes of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The techniques and insights from this research will also be applicable to other chronic conditions.’

Collaboration

Vermeulen emphasises how complicated the research is. ‘Unraveling the impact of non-genetic factors on our health is not easy, but with this unique collaboration between doctors, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, geographers and chemists, we think it should work.’ The research team operates under the leadership of Vermeulen and five other top scientists. In addition to Hankemeier, they are Mei-Po Kwan (Utrecht University), Rick Grobbee (University Medical Center Utrecht), Sasha Zhernakova (University Medical Center Groningen, RUG) and Joline Beulens (Amsterdam UMC). The participating institutes themselves add 8 million euros to the allocated 18 million.

Leiden expertise

Thomas Hankemeier (LACDR) will use metabolomics to measure the environmental effects in blood, and to investigate which factors predict health and hair disease. ‘We want to use metabolomics and organs-on-chip models to unravel the underlying mechanisms of how environmental factors lead to diseases. Those models can help identify potential disease prevention options’, says Hankemeier. ‘Ultimately, we want to develop metabolomics so much further and make it cheap enough so that we can screen large population groups in the Netherlands in this way.’