‘Internal effect markers’ – Take-aways from the 6th EXIMIOUS Symposium

The sixth EXIMIOUS Symposium was held online Thursday, 7 March 2024, attracting around 40 participants. This edition, titled “Internal effect markers: immune, genetics and epigenetics”, zoomed in on the topic of the impacts environmental and occupational exposures have on our health through three talks by the invited experts Dr. Unni Cecilie Nygaard (Norwegian Institute of Public Health), Dr. Mariona Bustamante (Barcelona Institute for Global Health), and Dr. Rossella Alfano (Hasselt University, Centre for Environmental Sciences). Did you miss the event? Read on as we share our key takeaways from the symposium with you. You can also watch the full video recording on the EXIMIOUS YouTube channel.

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 was the first to present her work on single cell profiling by mass cytometry as a promising tool for advancing environmental health and toxicology. As Dr. Nygaard explains, various environmental factors (e.g. air pollution, chemicals, etc.) have increased the incidence rate of immune diseases, which result 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) to capture the two concepts. The advantage of using this method is that you get high-dimensional information about the phenotype and functions of a cell from a single sample. In one of Dr. Nygaard’s ongoing studies in the EXIMIUOS project, demonstrated that the method of single cell analysis is a sensitive tool to reveal immune cell profiles associated with diseases. Future research will enhance these insights and exploit other sensitive endpoints such as metabolism and epigenetic markers.

The second speaker, Dr. Mariona Bustamante from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGGlobal) in Spain, presented a perspective on the topic of epigenetic marks of the exposome. More specifically, how the internal exposome is measured using candidate biomarkers or omics technologies, which is a way to quantify various biological molecules in a cell. Dr. Bustamante explains 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 final talk from Dr. Rossella Alfano from the Hasselt University, Centre for Environmental Sciences (CMK) in Belgium, presented her 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.