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Global coordination of exposome research


The concept of the exposome refers to the totality of environmental exposures from conception onwards, including its external (e.g. diet, lifestyle, occupational and environmental factors) and internal components (e.g. epigenomics, metabolomics). Developing a comprehensive Human Exposome Project would present a fundamental shift in looking at health, by moving research away from ‘one exposure, one disease’ understanding to a more complex picture upon which to build solid, cost-effective preventive actions and policies. At its most complete, the efforts could resemble in scope the Human Genome Project.

The European Human Exposome Network (EHEN)[[]], a cluster of 9 projects funded since 2020 for five years from Horizon 2020, is currently the world’s largest network of projects studying the impact of environmental exposure on human health with an exposome angle. Together, the network of projects aims to study the combination of exposures to pollutants and other stressors, across different life stages and socio-economic conditions, via a number of exposure vehicles such as consumption patterns, lifestyle and working and living environment, and their collective effect on human health.

At the international level, some related activities are ongoing in, e.g. the US (National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences) and Japan. Currently, there is only sporadic cooperation initiatives between the ongoing research at the EU level and important research groups outside Europe. However, in order to fulfil the promise of deciphering the human exposome, a large-scale effort similar to the Human Genome Project could be envisaged, for which a preparatory coordination and support action would be highly useful to identify and discuss the research needs and specific areas of potential cooperation at the global level. Additionally, both at the European and global level better coordination is essential to foster new opportunities to collect, harmonise, combine and analyse large data sets emanating from new and evolving technologies. This offers also new possibilities to understand the pathways leading from a multitude of environmental exposures to the global health burden of common chronic diseases. Standardisation and interoperability of data is also needed to assure access to quality data sources at the European and global level.

On the policy side, the outcomes of advancing the exposome research can touch upon and contribute to a better implementation of a wide range of policies and EU priorities such as the EU Chemicals Strategy[[]], Zero Pollution Action Plan[[]], the European Green Deal[[]] and climate policies[[]], among others. The benefits of cooperation would also extend to international initiatives such as activities of the World Health Organization related to environment and health[[;]] and the United Nations activities on climate[[]] and environment[[]].

Accordingly, proposals should cover, among others, most of the following activities:

  • Proposal for a common agreed conceptual framework for the exposome;
  • Proposal for options for a global governance structure for a Global Human Exposome Network taking advantage of and connecting to the existing research infrastructures and services in the area of the Exposome at the European level;
  • Agreed technologies needed to decipher the external and internal exposome, support longitudinal studies and potential for international cooperation;
  • Proposal for data mining, analysis, opportunities for harmonisation, interoperability, and standardisation in data collection, knowledge storage and transfer, and bioinformatics needs at the European and global level;
  • Cooperation between population and patient cohorts, integrating a large number of variables and comprehensive environmental datasets, and biobanks, also covering the perinatal period;
  • Facilitation of the regulatory uses of results including for regulatory science and risk assessment.

Proposals should interact with existing research infrastructures, services and research projects in the area of the exposome (namely the European Human Exposome Network but also other related projects and actions supported through Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe) and build on and integrate the work being developed in these initiatives. The composition of the applicant consortia should ensure a broad and balanced geographical representation of Member States and Associated Countries and the proposals should involve also Widening Member States and Associated Countries. International cooperation beyond EU with interested parties is required.