Enabling new research – the HEAP project helps to understand environmental factors that affect human health

Enabling new research – the HEAP project helps to understand environmental factors that affect human health

How does the exposure that individuals experience over their lives – the exposome* – affect to the human health? Why the age-adjusted incidence of diseases such as cancer is rising? How to improve environmental safety and consumer protection? 

HEAP (Human Exposome Assessment Platform) project will provide a research framework that exploits emerging technologies to expand the knowledge and understanding of environmental factors crucial to human health. 

The project will build a technology for collecting, managing, sharing and ultimately analyzing exposome related Big Data on a large scale. The platform currently being developed, will enable collaborative exposome research by utilizing data among others from longitudinally followed population-based cohorts in advanced exposome measurement technologies, all aided by distributed high-performance computational resources.

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Team of international excellence across all project areas

The HEAP project partners specialize in areas such as population-based data collection and design, ethical and legal framework architecture, information technology infrastructure and big data analysis, and communication and training. There are 11 project partners including nine academic institutions and two small and medium enterprises, from six European countries.

The lead partner for HEAP is Karolinska Institutet. Karolinska Institutet is Sweden’s largest medical research center and one of the world’s leading medical universities. Project principal investigator Professor Joakim Dillner of Karolinska Institutet sees the possibilities of the HEAP project as:

– By building a joint international platform for handling environmental exposure data, we will enable large-scale and international exposome research where data from many countries can be efficiently managed and shared.

Secure infrastructure for Big Data

CSC - IT Center for Science leads the Secure Infrastructure for Big Data work in the HEAP project. The aim is to develop technology for managing and storing sensitive human data. In practice it means a secure data storage in a cloud environment and streaming of remote data for processing through a secure data access mechanism.

The CSC lead Juha Törnroos highlights the importance of the research community on this development:

– This is a very exciting and groundbreaking project that enables research on valuable cohort data and completely new types of data. This gives us an understanding about the requirements for the services that we develop for the researchers and therefore the development done in the project will benefit the whole research community. The importance of this should not be underestimated.

Visiting professor Matti Lehtinen from Karolinska Institutet and University of Tampere has established population-based intervention cohorts originally randomized by community into gender-neutral vs. girls-only human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination. Subsequently the 42,000 participants have been individually randomized into infrequent vs. frequent cancer screening jointly with a myriad of epigenetic and microbiome information that will help to identify not only residual anogenital and oropharyngeal cancer risks, but also impact of the interventions on microbial ecosystems in the vaccine and/or herd effect protected cohorts. The development work of this new HEAP project makes it possible to “manage the vast data pool with new information in a data protection secured and user-friendly environment”.

The five-year project (2020-2025) is funded by European Horizon 2020 Framework Program.

More information of the HEAP project

* The exposome has been defined as the totality of exposure individuals experience over their lives and how those exposures affect health. Three exposome domains have been identified: internal, specific external and general external. Internal factors are those that are unique to the individual, and specific external factors include occupational exposures and lifestyle factors. The general external domain includes factors such as education level and financial status.