Sometimes the best ideas come from looking at things just a little differently. Bioinformatics expert Atul Butte, MD, PhD, and graduate student Chirag Patel did just that in a study published today in the journal PLoS ONE.
The scientists were trying to figure out how to incorporate multiple environmental variables into estimates of disease risk. (Epidemiological studies-although able to suss out single, strong relationships like that between folic acid levels and birth defects-are no match for the complex stew of "stuff" most of us marinate in all our lives.) Then they realized that geneticists had been dealing with a similar problem for years.
From our release:
In this new study, the scientists relied instead on an unconventional approach that treats environmental variables as “genes.” That conceptual shift allowed them to use some of the same techniques initially developed to identify the many sections of DNA throughout the genome that might contribute to disease development.
When the researchers applied the new approach to data collected from 1999 to 2006 in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, or NHANES, they found some intriguing associations between Type-2 diabetes and exposure to some environmental toxins. Perhaps even more importantly, they also identified a relationship between a form of vitamin E and the disease.
An association doesn't mean that vitamin E causes Type-2 diabetes, the authors emphasize. But it should trigger a closer look at the vitamin and any role it may play in regulating blood sugar levels. In the meantime, Butte and his colleagues are excited about test driving their new technique, coined EWAS, for "Environment Wide Association Study," with other diseases including cancer:
This approach catapults us from being forced to ask very simple, directed questions about environment and disease into a new realm in which we can look at many, many variables simultaneously and without bias. In the future, we’ll be able to analyze the effect of genes and environment together, to find, perhaps, that a specific gene increases the risk of a disease only if the person is also drinking polluted well water.
Photo (do you see a vase, or two faces?) by littleblackcamera