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.
 
Title Art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE" as part of MRC Festival of Medical Research - 17-27 June 2019 
Description The MRC Centre's activity for the MRC Festival of Medical research in 2019 was an art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE". The aim was to raise awareness and engage in discussion with the public on the protective health effects of urban greenspace, and the challenges of measuring human connection to natural environments. The art installation was created by one of our MRC early career researchers, Charlie Roscoe, and artists, Enya Lachman-Curl, Robbie Thompson, Rupert Cole and Robbie Parks. The GREENSPACE installation was located for a two weeks in a public space in London - Merchant Square in Paddington. This is a busy urban area frequented by many local office workers during their lunch break and a significant number engaged in discussion with the MRC Centre researchers present or obtained information on our work on Greenspaces through the leaflets provided. The event was widely advertised as part of the MRC Festival programme and in the websites and social media for the MRC Centre, Imperial College and the Medical Research Council both before and after the event. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact Raising awareness amongst members of the public of the importance of greenspaces in urban settings for health and wellbeing. 
 
Description Health Data Strategy for London - national consultation on strategy development.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
 
Description Medical Research Council consultation on MRC Unit and Centre Portfolio Review of major research and health opportunities and challenges.
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
 
Description Provision of advice to COMARE Committee - by UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit (SAHSU)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Description Grant awarded to Dr Stephanie Wright starting April 2020 - "Understanding UK airborne microplastic pollution: sources, pathways and fate"
Amount £582,250 (GBP)
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2020 
End 03/2023
 
Description Health Protection Research Unit on Chemical and Radiation Threats and Hazards at Imperial College London
Amount £3,996,866 (GBP)
Funding ID NIHR 200922 
Organisation National Institute for Health Research 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2020 
End 03/2025
 
Description Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Cohort - collaboration 
Organisation Genomics plc
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provision of epidemiological advice on study design, biospecimen collection protocol and contribution of experience from UK Biobank.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in genomics, Biobanking, pharmacogenetics.
Impact ongoing collaboration - pilot planned
Start Year 2019
 
Description Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Cohort - collaboration 
Organisation GlaxoSmithKline (GSK)
Department Quantitative Sciences (GSK)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provision of epidemiological advice on study design, biospecimen collection protocol and contribution of experience from UK Biobank.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in genomics, Biobanking, pharmacogenetics.
Impact ongoing collaboration - pilot planned
Start Year 2019
 
Description Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Cohort - collaboration 
Organisation Queen Mary University of London
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of epidemiological advice on study design, biospecimen collection protocol and contribution of experience from UK Biobank.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in genomics, Biobanking, pharmacogenetics.
Impact ongoing collaboration - pilot planned
Start Year 2019
 
Description Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Cohort - collaboration 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Department MRC Epidemiology Unit
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of epidemiological advice on study design, biospecimen collection protocol and contribution of experience from UK Biobank.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in genomics, Biobanking, pharmacogenetics.
Impact ongoing collaboration - pilot planned
Start Year 2019
 
Description Accelerating Detection of Disease (ADD) Cohort - collaboration 
Organisation University of Oxford
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provision of epidemiological advice on study design, biospecimen collection protocol and contribution of experience from UK Biobank.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise in genomics, Biobanking, pharmacogenetics.
Impact ongoing collaboration - pilot planned
Start Year 2019
 
Description Discover-NOW Health Data Research Hub 
Organisation Imperial College Health Partners
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Expertise in clinical epidemiology of common multifactorial diseases and assessment of environmental exposures and access to Small Area Health Statistics Unit health and environmental datasets.
Collaborator Contribution Project and data hub coordination and liaison with healthcare providers and services.
Impact ongoing collaboration
Start Year 2020
 
Description Discover-NOW Health Data Research Hub 
Organisation Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Expertise in clinical epidemiology of common multifactorial diseases and assessment of environmental exposures and access to Small Area Health Statistics Unit health and environmental datasets.
Collaborator Contribution Project and data hub coordination and liaison with healthcare providers and services.
Impact ongoing collaboration
Start Year 2020
 
Description Discover-NOW Health Data Research Hub 
Organisation North West London Commissioning Hub
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Expertise in clinical epidemiology of common multifactorial diseases and assessment of environmental exposures and access to Small Area Health Statistics Unit health and environmental datasets.
Collaborator Contribution Project and data hub coordination and liaison with healthcare providers and services.
Impact ongoing collaboration
Start Year 2020
 
Description UK DRI and CHARIOT patient register collaboration 
Organisation Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Hospitals 
PI Contribution Expertise in epidemiology of patient cohorts and metabolomics and genome wide association studies
Collaborator Contribution Data collection in the CHARIOT patient register and expertise in elderly/geriatric clinical epidemiology and diseases of later life including dementias.
Impact new ongoing collaboration
Start Year 2020
 
Description Academic Health Sciences Centre Seminar Series 2020 on "Challenging the Myths and Misconceptions of Radiation" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited seminar as part of Imperial College AHSC lunchtime research seminar series with mixed audience of academics, clinicians, students and media correspondents. Seminar presented some results from the COSMOS mobile phone use and health project and the SCAMP study of adolescents and cognitive development project. There was a lot of questions during the networking session.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
 
Description Interview with Dr Stephanie Wright, King's College London, about research into plastic fibres being found in the air featured on the BBC's 'War on Plastics with Hugh and Anita' June 17 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Dr Stephanie Wright, King's College London, appeared on "War on Plastic with Hugh and Anita" on Mon, June 17, 2019 to discuss the potential for microscopic plastic particles (microplastics) to impact human health via inhalation and diet. Dr Wright is interested in whether microplastics are airborne; whether air quality measurement instruments can be applied to monitor microplastics; what the sources of airborne microplastics are; whether humans are bioaccumulating microplastics; and the potential human health impacts associated with microplastic exposure.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.pressdata.co.uk/viewbroadcast.asp?a_id=18502399
 
Description Keynote presentation by Dr Stephanie Wright at the GESAMP International Workshop on assessing the risks associated with plastics and microplastics in the marine environment, 21st-23rd May 2019, Geneva, Switzerland on "Human health risks associated with nano- and microplastics" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote presentation by Dr Stephanie Wright at the GESAMP International Workshop on assessing the risks associated with plastics and microplastics in the marine environment, 21st-23rd May 2019, Geneva, Switzerland on "Human health risks associated with nano- and microplastics"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation by Dr Areti Boulieri on "Detecting life expectancy anomalies in England using a Bayesian hierarchical model" at the 62nd ISI World Statistics Congress 2019 in Malaysia from 18th to 23rd August 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation by Dr Areti Boulieri on "Detecting life expectancy anomalies in England using a Bayesian hierarchical model" at the 62nd ISI World Statistics Congress 2019 in Malaysia from 18th to 23rd August
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.isi2019.org/
 
Description Presentation by Dr Jessica Laine on "Cross-omics mediation in epidemiology: moving beyond biomarkers and into molecular mechanisms" - 2019 Annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiological Research (SER) in Minneapolis, USA 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation by Dr Jessica Laine on "Cross-omics mediation in epidemiology: moving beyond biomarkers and into molecular mechanisms" - 2019 Annual meeting of the Society for Epidemiological Research (SER) in Minneapolis, USA
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://epiresearch.org/annual-meeting/2019-meeting/
 
Description Presentation by Dr Stephanie Wright at the Society for Free Radical Research Europe (SFRRE) Annual Meeting 19-21 June, Ferrara, Italy on "Redox Homeostasis: From Signalling to Damage" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation by Dr Stephanie Wright at the Society for Free Radical Research Europe (SFRRE) Annual Meeting 19-21 June, Ferrara, Italy on "Redox Homeostasis: From Signalling to Damage"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Presentation to 15th Annual Conference of The Metabolomics Society, June 23-27 2019, The Hague, NL 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presented methods and results of work on a new cross-cohort matching in untargeted metabolomics to generate accurate within-dataset feature matching across multiple cohorts. The new approach addresses a key problem in metabolomics studies and promises to make analysis of large untargeted multi-cohort data sets a viable option.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://metabolomics2019.org/images/2019-Metabolomics_Abstract_9.pdf
 
Description Press release re: JAMA publication on analysis to combine genetic results with patients' QRISK score to enhance knowledge of genetic variants linked to heart health 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Press release related to publication of JAMA paper on predictive accuracy of a Polygenic Risk Score for coronary artery disease resulted in a lot of interest within the research community and contacts to do comparative and further analyses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/195398/gene-tests-heart-disease-risk-have/
 
Description Public Engagement - Art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE" as part of MRC Festival of Medical Research - 17-27 June 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The MRC Centre's activity for the MRC Festival of Medical research in 2019 was an art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE". The aim was to raise awareness and engage in discussion with the public on the protective health effects of urban greenspace, and the challenges of measuring human connection to natural environments.
The art installation was created by one of our MRC early career researchers, Charlie Roscoe, and artists, Enya Lachman-Curl, Robbie Thompson, Rupert Cole and Robbie Parks.
The GREENSPACE installation was located for a two weeks in a public space in London - Merchant Square in Paddington. This is a busy urban area frequented by many local office workers during their lunch break and a significant number engaged in discussion with the MRC Centre researchers present or obtained information on our work on Greenspaces through the leaflets provided.
The event was widely advertised as part of the MRC Festival programme and in the websites and social media for the MRC Centre, Imperial College and the Medical Research Council both before and after the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public Engagement - Art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE" as part of the Great Exhibition Road Festival - 29-30 June 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact The MRC Centre's activity for the Great Exhibition Road Festival in 2019 (previously Imperial Festival) was an art installation on the theme of "GREENSPACE". The aim was to raise awareness and engage in discussion with the public on the protective health effects of urban greenspace, and the challenges of measuring human connection to natural environments. The art installation was created by one of our MRC early career researchers, Charlie Roscoe, and artists, Enya Lachman-Curl, Robbie Thompson, Rupert Cole and Robbie Parks. The GREENSPACE installation was extremely popular over the whole weekend with the visitors to the Imperial Festival which engaged in discussion with the MRC Centre researchers present or obtained information on our work on Greenspaces through the leaflets provided. The event was widely advertised as part of the Festival programme and in the websites and social media for the MRC Centre and Imperial College and was featured in several news items on the Great Exhibition Road Festival.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public Engagement - Schools' information and engagement day during National Clean Air Day at Manchester Clean Air Week- 20 June 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A team of air quality scientists from the MRC Centre (King's College) organised an information and awareness day on National Clean Air Day (20 June) aimed at children from schools in and around Manchester during the Manchester Clean Air Week (Monday 17 until Sunday 23 June). The event was attended by several hundred pupils who attended the interactive demonstrations and participated in active discussion with the Centre researchers on the health effects of air pollution and what they can do to reduce the risks. The event was run in parallel with an internationally acclaimed art installation - Pollution Pods - which attracted large numbers of visitors and was widely reported on local and national news.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public Engagement - stand at the New Scientist Live event on the research at the MRC Centre and the HPRU on the Health Impact of Environmental Exposures - 10-13 October 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Researchers from the MRC Centre together with colleagues from Public Health England hosted a stand at the New Scientist Live festival to showcase collaborative work on the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Impact of Environmental Hazards Health Protection Research Unit. There were a range of displays and interactive activities aimed at children and adults, including on air pollution, chemicals in the environment, e-cigarettes, particles and studies with schools. A survey of attendees indicated their current top environmental concerns were climate change and air pollution, and there was a lot of interest in e-cigarettes and the translation of the science into policy. The stand was extremely well attended and the festival presented a great opportunity to interact with members of the public.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Research by Dr Stephanie Wright featured in ITV's Tonight 'Plastic: The unhidden truth' on 24/10/2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Research from our lab showed that the average person swallows at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and breathes in a similar amount, according to the first study to estimate human ingestion of plastic pollution.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019