MRC Centre for Environment and Health

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: School of Public Health

Abstract

Environmental exposures are increasingly recognised as playing a fundamental role in the development and exacerbation of human diseases, against a background of genetic susceptibility. Estimates suggest that 70% to 90% of disease risks are due to differences in environments. Over half of the world's population now lives in urban environments (around 3.5 billion people worldwide and increasing). Therefore, the built environment plays a critical role in shaping population exposure to environmental hazards, both in the UK and other high-income countries and in Lower and Middle-Income Countries. Urban living is accompanied by a range of environmental challenges including air and noise pollution, especially related to transport networks, access to green space, housing quality and other exposures such as non-ionising radiation from the panoply of digital communications systems and devices. Many environmental exposures are ubiquitous and therefore we are all exposed to a greater or lesser extent (e.g. air pollution). Given the overwhelming importance of the environment in determining variation in disease rates both between and across populations, there is great potential to reduce morbidity and mortality from disease, and increase life expectancy, from appropriate interventions and controls on environmental exposures. By contrast, although genetic susceptibility is important, genes contribute overall to a relatively small component of disease variation in populations and are much less open to manipulation than the environment. Therefore, to have major impact on disease occurrence, we need to i) identify existing and emerging environmental hazards, ii) quantify the risk to human individuals and populations, iii) better understand the mode of action and toxic properties of such environmental contaminants, and iv) help identify populations and individuals at greatest risk so that interventions (including prevention policies and treatments) can be appropriately targeted.

In this second renewal period of the Centre, we propose to focus our research efforts on three ubiquitous environmental challenges, air pollution, noise pollution and non-ionising radiation. We propose to take a holistic ('whole systems') approach to understand the influence of the environment on disease development, progression and exacerbation. We will focus on the influence of urban environments on health, at population, individual and molecular levels. We will exploit developments in i) low-cost technologies that will help measure the extent that individuals are exposed to specific pollutants (e.g. from air); ii) comprehensive assessment of advanced analytical methods that provide information from biological samples (blood, urine) on exposure to environmental contaminants; iii) information on exposure to environmental hazards collected from wearable devices and from satellite images (e.g. air pollution), and other data sources that capture the complexity of human interactions with the city environment; iv) new methods that allow us to combine data from a variety of sources and analyse them together to better understand the relationships of environmental factors and health.

To address the issues related to the analysis of very large datasets, we will link to the investments that have been made in Health Data Research (HDR) UK (both Imperial and King's are part of the HDR UK London substantive site). We will utilise and further advance developments in computational techniques to gain new knowledge on the causal links between environment and health. In this way we aim to help identify individuals at greatest risk from their exposures to environmental hazards, and thus plan for appropriate messaging to the public, mitigation and prevention of the effects of the adverse environmental exposures on health.

Technical Summary

We propose to focus our research efforts on three ubiquitous environmental challenges: air pollution, noise pollution and non-ionising radiation. We will study these exposures at the population, individual and molecular levels, taking a systems approach to understand the influence of the environment on disease development, progression and exacerbation. We will focus on the influence of urban environments on health, exploiting developments in i) low-cost environmental sensor technologies that will improve individual exposure assessment at scale; ii) comprehensive assessment of biological signatures through omic technologies applied to our cohorts; iii) remote sensing (including satellites) and other data sources that capture the complexity of human interactions with the city environment; iv) multi-dimensional approaches to data integration and analysis. To further a causal understanding of the effects of environmental contaminants on health, we will investigate the pathophysiological pathways and accompanying mechanisms behind such effects using omic technologies, cell cultures and model organisms.

We will combine high-resolution locational data (space, time), experimental data, biomarker and mechanistic studies, and analyses of large cohorts, using advanced exposure modelling and hierarchical statistical techniques. To address the high computational and data analytic needs, we will link to Health Data Research (HDR) UK (both Imperial and King's are part of the HDR UK London substantive site), and utilise and further advance developments in computational biology and bioinformatics. Such advances are essential to better understand the mode of action and toxic properties of a range of environmental contaminants, and help identify individuals at greatest risk. The results of our research will inform the design and implementation of policies to control, as necessary, and reduce the population disease burden from environmental hazards.

Planned Impact

Ensuring the maximum impact of our research is one of the core aims of the MRC Centre for Environment and Health. Our strategies for realising these impacts are detailed further in our Pathways to Impact.

Public: The Centre undertakes research into major public health questions concerning the effects of environmental hazards, such as air pollution. The results of our research inform the design and implementation of policies to control, as necessary, environmental exposures to lower the risk to the population and hence reduce the disease burden and improve health. The knowledge gained from our research is disseminated through existing, well supported channels, and used to influence the policies and interventions that affect the lives of people across the world. Our input to policy includes on air quality exposure limits and improving the understanding of the causes of non-communicable disease. Through our media and other contacts, the Centre has had considerable impact in highlighting key environment and health issues to the general public, e.g. the risks to health from ambient levels of air pollution. In addition, the Centre will seek to engage further with the public, providing them with the information needed to understand the science behind the research outputs, and therefore empowering them to make better-informed decisions and choices.

Policymakers: In the areas of environment and public health, policymakers benefit from the Centre's research outputs in a number of ways. Our researchers will continue to work in collaboration with policy experts, providing the evidence necessary for effective science-based policy. Many of the Centre's senior researchers hold policy and advisory group positions. We intend to develop more proactive mechanisms for sharing up-to-date information and data developed within the Centre to benefit policymakers, providing them with the necessary information to make informed policy decisions. For example, Centre members are interacting directly with the government Chief Scientist on the appropriate response to the levels of air pollutants extant in our major cities. Finally, the training offered by the Centre to early career researchers, who may then go on to work in policy and public health, provides them with the knowledge and expertise for effective policy decision-making within environment and health.

Industry: We are already working with a range of industrial collaborators on new technologies for measurement and control of pollutants, and in health screening. More generally, industry will benefit from the development of new methodologies or resources of public health or clinical relevance, some of which will be of commercial value. We can also benefit industry through acting as an effective research partner, bringing together wide-ranging, and cross-cutting research resources and expertise. Workers within particular industries will benefit from research that is more focussed on occupation, e.g. taxi drivers, London Underground staff, police officers, and will lead to cleaner, less polluted and/or less stressful workplaces and better health for employees.

Early Career Researchers (ERCs): ERCs benefit from the wide range of training and opportunities provided by the Centre, including bespoke training workshops, seminars, and networking events. This will equip them with the skills to develop careers in environment and health, within academia, industry, government and national/international policymaking.

Publications

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