NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences funded research at Stanford University to examine how the environment can contribute to the development of Type 2 diabetes. This “enviromics” approach to research mirrors genome-wide association studies and harnesses high-speed computers and publicly accessible databases.
As a result of the research, the scientists recently authored a study called “Environment-wide Association Study” (EWAS) published in the May 20th online journal PLoS O.
Like many complex diseases, diabetes results from the interplay of genetic and environmental factors. To examine genetic risk factors, scientists pore over the human genome sequence. Environmental factors have been trickier since there is no way to evaluate them comprehensively.
Research in this area is nothing new. Researchers for years have been identified the relationships between a person’s environment and cancer and the environment on other diseases. Up to now, scientists have been limited in their ability to assess the hundreds or even thousands of variables that are involved in our everyday lives.
In this study, the Stanford scientists treated environmental variables as genes. This conceptual shift allowed them to use some of the same techniques initially developed to identify the many sections of DNA throughout the genome that may contribute to disease development.
Bioinformatics expert and senior author for the published information on the research study, Atul Butte, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pediatric Cancer Biology at Stanford, compares the data generated by the new approach to the amount and types of information gleaned from a DNA microarray.
Dr. Butte imagines that one day people will wear chips on their clothing and will be able to assess their exposure to hundreds or thousands of environmental toxins. The patient would then be able to bring that information to their annual physical and at that point, the patient and doctor would be able to incorporate this information into discussions about disease risk and prevention.
For the study, the researchers examined 226 separate environmental factors like nutrition and exposure to bacteria, viruses, allergens, and toxins. They found that a certain factor notably a pesticide derivative and the environmental contaminant PCB were strongly associated with the development of diabetes. Other factors showed that the nutrient beta-carotene serves as a protective role.
The researchers report that their work demonstrates that computational approaches can reveal as much about environmental contributions to disease as genetic factors can. They contend that the techniques that they used in their research could be applied to other complex diseases like cancer, obesity, hypertension, and cardiovascular disorders.
The NIGMS research was also funded by the National Library of Medicine, the National Institute on Aging, Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.