Takeaways from “Internal effect markers: immune, genetics and epigenetics” Symposium

The sixth EXIMIOUS Symposium, “Internal effect markers: immune, genetics and epigenetics”, was held online on 7 March 2024 and attracted around 40 participants.

The Symposium focused on the health impacts of environmental and occupational exposures, and featured three talks by the invited experts Dr. Unni Cecilie Nygaard from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Dr. Mariona Bustamante from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, and Dr. Rossella Alfano from Hasselt University, Centre for Environmental Sciences.

You can watch the video of the Symposium on the Eximious YouTube channel via the link below.

After a brief introduction to the EXIMIOUS project and the symposium by EXIMIOUS coordinator Prof. Peter Hoet (KU Leuven), the presentations kicked off with a talk from an EXIMIOUS researcher Dr. Unni Cecilie Nygaard from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH). She presented her work on single cell profiling by mass cytometry, which is a promising tool for advancing environmental health and toxicology.

Single cell analysis can reveal immune cell profiles associated with diseases.

Dr. Nygaard explained that environmental factors  such as air pollution, chemicals, are linked to an increased incidence of immune diseases. This results in adverse health effects such as auto-immunity, increased hyper-sensitivity or immuno-suppression. With a lack of guideline tests to identify sensitive and relative endpoints, there is a need for new methods to identify diseases associated with immunotoxicity.

Dr. Nygaard explained that the new methods should consider two important concepts: to capture the complexity of the immune system and the depth of the immune response. To achieve this, her research has focused on the use of single cell profiling by mass cytometry (CyTOF), which provides high-dimensional information about the phenotype and functions of a cell from a single sample. One of Dr. Nygaard’s ongoing studies in the EXIMIOUS project demonstrated that single cell analysis can reveal immune cell profiles associated with diseases. Future research will enhance these insights and exploit other sensitive endpoints such as metabolism and epigenetic markers.

Epigenetic data can be used to predict the onset of exposure-related diseases.

The second speaker, Dr. Mariona Bustamante from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGGlobal) in Spain, presented on epigenetic markers of the exposome, and how the internal exposome is measured using candidate biomarkers or omics technologies, which is a way to quantify biological molecules in a cell.

Dr. Bustamante explained how DNA methylation, a type of epigenetic modification that regulates gene expression, can be used to study biological mechanisms connected to the exposome, and predict exposures that lead to various diseases. In one of Dr. Bustamante’s ongoing studies, epigenetic data was used to study the biological mechanism of maternal smoking during pregnancy and the placental genome. The study revealed an increased number of DNA methylation sites in the placenta of smoking mothers which is directly associated with the quantity of smoking during the pregnancy. In this context, it means that some factors crucial for fetal development are affected. The take-home message? Epigenetic data can be used not only to study biological mechanisms but also to predict exposures and associated diseases.

The role of cholesterol in birthweight

The final talk from Dr. Rossella Alfano from the Hasselt University, Centre for Environmental Sciences (CMK) in Belgium, presented research and insights from multi-omics analysis, specifically to unlock the role of cholesterol in birthweight. As Dr. Alfano explains, there have been many studies that directly relate smoking during pregnancy to a variation of birthweight and the occurrence of diseases in later life. In one of Dr. Alfano’s studies, the exposome-wide study with the use of multi-omics was able to detect exposures directly related to cholesterol in mothers and birthweight of children. Future research will enhance these insights by looking at the potential association of cholesterol in birthweight with childhood traits and disease correlation.

The EXIMIOUS consortium would like to thank the speakers for sharing their latest work and valuable insights with the audience. It is evident that their research will a great impact on society.

We are looking forward to bringing you more exposome research highlights at the next EXIMIOUS Symposium in Autumn 2024, so stay tuned! If you’d like to be notified about the next symposia you can also subscribe here and we’ll send you an invitation in due time.

March 28, 2024