Which groups are affected by certain chronic diseases, and which groups aren't? This depends on genetics (30%) and on the exposome (70%). By exposome, we mean all kinds of factors in everyday life, including what we eat and drink, the air we breathe, our social interactions and lifestyle choices such as smoking and exercise. The individual’s biological response to these factors also forms part of this exposome. Much remains to be discovered about the exposome, and therefore about the development of chronic diseases. A consortium of researchers from Utrecht, Leiden, Amsterdam and Groningen (UMCG / University of Groningen), under the leadership of Roel Vermeulen (Utrecht) will investigate which factors of the exposome are important for health and how these factors work. To this end, the consortium has been awarded 18 million euros from the prestigious Gravitation Grant. The participating institutes themselves are contributing an additional 8 million euros.
Vermeulen: 'In their daily lives, people make all kinds of choices that have a major impact on their health. Thanks to the grant, we are able to identify all non-genetic risk factors for the health of the Dutch population.' Much is already known about the human genome, and the researchers now also wish to systematically analyse the human exposome for the first time. 'We know that the disease burden of people with chronic illness is largely influenced by the exposome. That’s why this grant is so important. We will start by researching the causes of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The techniques and insights from this study can also be applied to other chronic conditions.'
Within the UMCG, within the Exposome-NL project we focus on the internal exhibition; the environmental factors in our body. The most important factor in this is the microbiome in our intestines. The microbiome is composed of hundreds of microorganisms, including bacteria and viruses, and varies from person to person.
The grant enables us to investigate the precise role of the microbiome in the interaction with environmental factors: air pollution, chemicals, diet and lifestyle. We also look at how the environmental factors influence the activity of the genes. For this we work closely with Lifelines: Lifelines has unique and extensive exhibition data from residents from the Northern Netherlands, collected over a longer period. By linking this data to genetic information and the microbiome via so-called "big data analyzes", we want to understand how environmental factors influence health and the development of disease. This can bring us closer to a future where we can prevent diseases and grow old healthier.
Mechanisms of diseases
The principle of scientific research at the UMCG is to add more healthy years to life. That is why we conduct research into the mechanisms of diseases, so the question: what is the basis of an illness? We are also looking for ways to prevent diseases and, if diseases do occur, for new ways to identify and treat them.
Vermeulen emphasises the complexity of the research. 'Unravelling the impact of non-genetic factors on our health is not easy, but with this unique collaboration between physicians, molecular biologists, epidemiologists, geographers and chemists, we think we should succeed.' The research team operates under the leadership of Vermeulen (Utrecht University and University Medical Center Utrecht) and five other top scientists: Mei-Po Kwan (Utrecht University), Rick Grobbee (University Medical Center Utrecht), Thomas Hankemeier (Leiden University), Sasha Zhernakova (University Medical Center Groningen, RUG) and Joline Beulens (Amsterdam UMC).
By means of Gravitation, the government encourages research by groups of leading scientists in the Netherlands to be among the global top. Researchers must carry out innovative and influential research in their field. The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science has asked the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research to carry out the selection procedure for this funding programme.