Working to improve air quality is one of the areas in which the European Union has been most active by controlling emissions of harmful substances, improving fuel quality, and by integrating environmental protection requirements into the transport and energy sectors. Now the EU is funding its biggest investment in environmental health in a unique venture. Subjects will carry smartphones equipped with sensors to measure exposures to the environment, and their blood will be analysed to monitor molecular changes. One of the goals is to look for biomarker differences between people walking through areas with low air pollution and those exposed to urban fumes, in order to understand the triggers for conditions such as heart disease, lung cancer and asthma.
Understanding those triggers for the aforementioned diseases could lead to prevention in many cases so this study is particularly important. Poor air quality is considered a contributing factor to many health issues. According to the European Heart Network, each year cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the main cause of death in Europe. Whilst cigarette smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer, it also affects those who have never smoked but have been exposed to high levels of air pollution or other chemicals for example. Asthma is another condition, which is increasing across Europe which is often triggered by an allergic reaction to substances commonly breathed in through the air.
Understanding what causes these conditions, as well as the chemicals people are exposed to and the effects in the body, will be the main objective of two major projects, which have a combined funding of EUR 17.3 million from the European Commission. The study of the exposome – the effects of environmental exposures on health - will help scientists work towards a complete picture of how environmental pollutants influence health. The researchers hope the four-year study will benefit public health in ways that genome research so far has not been able to.
The first of the two projects is Exposomics, which involves 12 partner institutions led by Imperial College London, with participation of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The other is the HELIX Project, which is led by the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) and involves 13 partner institutions.
The projects will develop high-tech tools to improve the ability to measure the exposome (defined as environmental components), with a particular focus on multiple chemical exposures from food, air and water during critical periods of a persons’ lifetime.
The scientist leading the Exposomics project, Professor Paolo Vineis from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, adds, 'The sequencing of the human genome has provided a wealth of information about genetic susceptibility involved in disease, but it has become clear that the diseases with the greatest burden, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, are mainly caused by factors other than genetics. These are likely to include aspects of lifestyle and the environment, but the precise roles of different factors in causing diseases are not well understood.'
The second project is HELIX, which builds an early-life exposome with a focus on children and pregnant women as they are more prone to environmental influences because their organs are still developing. Researchers will track disease biomarkers so they can assess the effects of exposure to environmental pollutants on growth, obesity, immune development and asthma.
The project will make use of technology to measure exposure to environmental pollutants (such as pesticides, diesel exhaust fumes and tobacco smoke) and the overall effect on the body and how they influence the risk of disease.
Dr Vrijheid, the coordinator of Helix, adds; 'The results of the projects will help us to form a global view on how various types of exposures co-exist and jointly impact on health.'
The first results are expected to emerge within two years.