Recently, the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and the Systems Biology Core of the Georgia Tech BME Department have received a $4 million grant to develop an exposome center called HERCULES (Health and Exposome Research Center: Understanding Lifetime Exposures).
“The significance is that we all want to understand health and disease. Nobody understands how some exposures affect health and cause disease”, says Professor Eberhard Voit, head of the Biology System’s Core. “This project which is run out of Emory tries to develop strategies for approaching that question. We think that we can develop the first tips to show how different exposures affect different gene expressions or possibly tolerance.”
The grant for this Emory-Georgia Tech program comes from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which aims to aid investigators in determining how environmental agents affect human diseases, and while the HERCULES program is mainly headed by Emory, Tech hopes to make a difference through the Biology System’s Core as well as taking on a partnering role through the analysis of data through means of mathematics and computer science.
“It is a critical part. We get so much information that we don’t even know where to look hypotheses, and so the Biology System’s Core includes this machine learning where we look for patterns in the big data sets,” Voit said. “If somebody is exposed to this particular agent and if they have these particular gene snips or something then there is an elevated risk of developing, say, Parkinson’s or something.”
While undergraduate students may not have any active connection to this program, many science majors express interest in the endeavors of exposome research.
“Even though this sounds like a complicated project, it sounds worthwhile to check out things in our environment and try to analyze their harmful effects.” said ChBE major Viet Nguyen. “Especially in Atlanta, it’s worth looking into.”
Other students wonder how serious certain types of exposure are and view the project as an important step in measuring the risk of exposures in metropolitan areas.
“Since I believe that pollution is a consistent problem in cities, especially this one, they should definitely look into common things in cities that cause long-term health problems,” said ME major Alison English.
Professor Voit views the HERCULES programs as a valuable, yet small step to fully understanding how factors in our modern environment influence our health.