HEAP coordinator Joakim Dillner shares his thoughts about the project’s impact so far, the challenges ahead, and the role HEAP could play in transforming exposome research.
Q: The HEAP project is at the halfway point. What are the most significant milestones that have been achieved so far?
A: We have succeeded in launching an international platform for exposome data processing that can be used by investigators from many different countries. The data is stored in a single computer centre, and advanced analysis pipelines for the data are now being deployed.
The “Proof of Concept” sub-projects for the data warehouse are progressing well. In particular, the epigenomic project has already yielded significant insights, as the epigenomic data can now be read in an automated way. The project on microbial ecology that studies how microbes are affected by immunity is also making significant progress, and generating massive amounts of data.
Large amounts of data can be obtained easily from environmental research, but a major bottleneck is how to handle and analyse these data. We have come a long way towards establishing an international collaborative model for efficient data handling.
Q: What have been the main challenges that the project has faced?
A: A major challenge is to change the mindset and ways of working that have, in the past, been focused on local or national projects. Working in large consortia like HEAP involves new ways of working that can be unsettling for people, but international collaboration is essential for exposome research because the quantity of data that can be collected is enormous, and the task too daunting to be managed at a local level.
A favourite quotation of mine is that each person knows one little segment of the truth, but only by combining insights from several different people can you have a comprehensive view of what is going on.
Q: What are the main impacts that you hope to see from HEAP?
A: As well as enabling a truly international and collaborative approach to research, HEAP will show that multiple exposures can be studied and analysed in a comprehensive and holistic way, rather than focussing on single exposures. This approach generates a phenomenal amount of data that may seem overwhelming at first, but it's actually not difficult to analyse them as a whole. This realisation will be a key impact of the project.
Q: What is the most exciting thing about this project, from your perspective?
A: One extremely exciting thing is seeing the exposome concept gaining momentum almost exponentially, and being able to play a part in that.
In the years following the “birth” of the exposome in 2005, when the concept was first formulated by Dr Christopher Wild, thousands of papers were published looking a just a few exposures, in limited populations. Very little was published on the entirety of what the human is exposed to.
Now the exposome is coming of age, and researchers are realising its potential. This is happening both in the European Union, where the European Human Exposome Network has more than 170 participating institutions, and beyond, in the USA for example.
Q: Finally, what are your hopes for the field of exposome research over the next 5 or 10 years?
A: I hope that in the future, whenever there is an unexplained occurrence of a disease, such as a localised increase in cancer cases for example, that an exposome research team will be dispatched immediately to the country or region to discover the reason for the occurrence, and how it can be prevented.
I think that within five or ten years, informatics tools such as HEAP will be able to readily translate data on disease occurrence and prevalence into knowledge of why that is, and what can be done about it.
In this way, exposome research can take public health to a whole new level, by identifying and removing hazardous exposures, as well as providing data on exposures that are good for you, for example, in the area of nutrition.