Investigators at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, along with partners at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have received a $4 million grant over four years to establish the HERCULES Center at Emory University (Health and Exposome Research Center: Understanding Lifetime Exposures). The grant is the first exposome-based center grant awarded in the United States.
The HERCULES Center is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) of the National Institutes of Health as an Environmental Health Sciences Core Center. This NIEHS initiative is designed to establish leadership and support for programs of excellence in environmental health sciences by providing scientific guidance, technology and career development opportunities for promising investigators.
The exposome is a relatively new concept that incorporates all of the exposures encountered by humans. It is proposed to be the environmental equivalent of the human genome and includes lifetime exposures to environmental pollutants in food, water, physical activity, medications, homes and daily stressors. Exposome research looks at the holistic view of the human body’s exposures, how the body responds to those exposures, and their combined effects.
“HERCULES is more than an acronym,” explains Gary W. Miller, PhD, professor and associate dean for research at the Rollins School of Public Health, and director of the HERCULES Center. “Sequencing of the human genome project was a Herculean task, and determining the impact of the complex exposures we face throughout our lives represents a similarly difficult challenge. The exposome itself represents all of the external forces that act upon us. We know that measuring the exposome will be extremely difficult, but very worthwhile.”
Scientists believe that when coupled with a growing understanding of genetics, the exposome will help uncover the causes of many complex disorders, such as autism, asthma and Alzheimer’s disease.
Based at Emory’s School of Public Health, the HERCULES Center comprises 38 investigators from both Emory and Georgia Tech. The center aims to promote the importance of the environment at a level equivalent to that of genetics.
A key feature of the HERCULES Center is the Systems Biology Core headed by Eberhard Voit, PhD, in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology. Voit is a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. The Systems Biology Core will provide expertise in computational approaches used to analyze and integrate large datasets.
“Assessing the enormous complexity of the exposome means entering uncharted territory and a unique opportunity for exploring and applying concepts and computational technologies that are just emerging in the nascent field of systems biology,” says Voit, who is also the David D. Flanagan Chair in the biomedical engineering department. “We are very excited that Georgia Tech and Emory will venture into this new field together to learn and gain a greatly improved understanding of health and disease.”
“This is such exciting news for us all,” explains Paige Tolbert, PhD, chair of Environmental Health at Rollins School of Public Health and deputy director of the HERCULES Center. “This is a terrific development for the department, the school, the university and our bridge with Georgia Tech and beyond.”
The HERCULES Center aims to promote the concept of the human exposome project on both a national and international level and welcomes research outside of Emory and Georgia Tech.