November 15, 2018

Does Our Nature or Our Nurture Determine Our Wellness?

Wendy (White) Naughton

Wendy (White) Naughton
EMEA Healthcare Practice Lead/Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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Our health is a combination of nature or nurture, as are supposedly our personalities. Maybe your genes make you vulnerable to high blood pressure, but by watching what you eat, avoiding secondary smoke as well as not smoking, and exercising, you can supposedly keep this predisposition at bay.

Right now, we know a lot about the genetics side of this combination, as an explosion of research has yielded incredible detail about people’s genetic profiles. But the environmental piece of the puzzle is something research has not focused on as it probably has less of a commercial benefit. We don’t measure all the chemicals we encounter each day and we have little knowledge of how these affect us.

The concept of Exposome, defined by Dr. Christopher Wild in a landmark publication, in 2005 (Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, August 2005 14; 1847), finds its origin in the need for at that time cancer)scientists to devise and parallel  the concept of the genome, and coined on the same conceptual grid, a methodological tool for environmental exposure assessment. This research known as exposome has evolved beyond oncology and into other issues.

Michael Snyder, at Stanford, is a biologist and pioneer in genomics who has taken this work further.  Snyder invented a device that measures the environment. It’s part of his quest to learn how the environment impacts health by studying the various air particles, pollutants, viruses, bacteria that we come into contact with each day. 

Snyder in an interview stated: “My research helped me figure out when I got Lyme disease, actually. I was with my brother in rural Massachusetts putting up fences, and two weeks later I flew to Norway. When you fly, your blood oxygen levels drop, but they usually recover after you land. Mine didn’t. And my heart rate was abnormally high. I got a low-grade fever and went to a doctor, who told me I had a bacterial infection. I told him I thought it was Lyme. He recommended penicillin, but I said I think I need doxycycline, which is what you take for Lyme. I measured myself when I got home, and sure enough, I was Lyme positive. It was a perfectly controlled experiment because I’d given blood before I left and I was negative then.”

The first thing they learned is that the Exposome is vast which is certainly not revelatory. “There were more than 2,000 species registered during the two years of profiling. “Even the guy or gal who wore it for three months for the study was exposed to over 1,000 species. There were close to 3,000 chemical features detected in the whole study.”

Second is that the Exposome is dynamic. It varies a lot. How much of the variation is regional or seasonal? For the part they could figure out, location was and is the number one factor, especially for the chemicals. The time of year is another important factor. “We sampled four people living in the Bay Area??me, and people in Sunnyvale, Redwood City, and San Francisco. We profiled them over the same month, and everybody’s different. The person in San Francisco had sewer sludge bacteria in their samples; there are definitely parts of San Francisco that don’t smell so good. Every time I go to Monterey, I get a fungal exposure. Location really matters”. DEET is everywhere, which surprised me; it was in all the samples. There are a few carcinogens, like the solvent diethylene glycol. A limitation of our study is we don’t know the absolute amounts of exposures; we know relative amounts. That’s something we are working on to pin down. This was really just a survey to see generally what we are exposed to”.

Your eosinophils?—?a type of white blood cell?—?are actually a measure of allergic response. We can correlate my eosinophils with what exposures are out there. I thought I was probably most allergic to pine, but the correlation was actually better with eucalyptus.

One in five people have allergies or asthma now and this number seems to be growing. “It’s useful to know what triggers this. In California, I’m in eucalyptus heaven! I’m not going to cut down a eucalyptus tree”.

At the NIEHS, researchers have been working on Exposome as well and the Hercules Institutes is helping to further the research and findings.

“Baby teeth from children with autism contain more toxic lead and less of the essential nutrients zinc and manganese, compared to teeth from children without autism, according to an innovative study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health. The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that differences in early-life exposure to metals, or more importantly how a child’s body processes them, may affect the risk of autism. The differences in metal uptake between children with and without autism were especially notable during the months just before and after the children were born. The scientists determined this by using lasers to map the growth rings in baby teeth generated during different developmental periods.”

The researchers observed “higher levels of lead in children with autism throughout development, with the greatest disparity observed during the period following birth. They also observed lower uptake of manganese in children with autism, both before and after birth. The pattern was more complex for zinc”. Children with autism had lower zinc levels earlier in the womb, but these levels then increased after birth, compared to children without autism.

The researchers note that replication in larger studies is needed to confirm the connection between metal uptake and autism.

The German UFZ is also doing breakthrough work in this area

“Both exposure to contaminants as well as other environmental factors related to lifestyle affect our immune system and influence our internal chemical milieu. But just how exactly does this work?

To unravel these relationships, we are first of all concentrating on the mechanisms how chemicals and external perturbing factors influence the biological circuits in organisms. To achieve this, we are combining our expertise in ecotoxicology and research on human health in two complementary research approaches: on the one hand, bioassay tests with controlled exposure to contaminants (bottom-up approach) and on the other hand, biomonitoring analyses from aquatic organisms and cohorts (top-down approach) will be conducted. 

Our aim is to understand how environmental factors including exposure to contaminants influence the internal chemical milieu of organisms (the EXPOSOME) and which role these processes play in the formation of aquatic toxicity and chronic diseases. Based on this understanding we will be able to better predict the undesired adverse effects on the environment and on human health and derive preventative strategies from this”.

Currently, our system is focused on disease, but we need to focus on wellness and prevention of disease and what causes the transitions to disease and to avoid illness prolonging chronic issues for as long as we can. Algorithms based on the data collected may be able to predict when people become sick as the first sign is an increase in heart rate. It would might be a first step in self-care to track heart rate and measure when and where it changes to help in the future establish what may be the outcome or even to measure exposures to toxins etc. Rapid changes in the modern environment are intertwined with immune health through biological, psychological, social, and ecological factors. Investigations with new conceptual and experimental methods characterizing health promotion and health risks throughout life would be required to solve complex problems. Our lives and rapid changes on our planer demand a new systems-approach from scientists involved in allergy, immunology and the study of diseases.

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