Molecular Epidemiology

The research within our LUMC departments is conducted within departmental research programmes. The research programme below is embedded within the department of Biomedical Data Sciences.

Aim and focus

The mission of Molecular Epidemiology is to exploit Big Data in clinical studies and biobanks to discover biological pathways and biomarker profiles that mark and/or explain variance in the rate of ageing, the increasing susceptibility to disease (mainly cardiovascular disease (CVD) and osteoarthritis (OA)) with age and the factors that promote healthy ageing. The group is involved in building reference datasets, research infrastructure and developing methodology for the analysis of omics data. The research programme is founded on multidisciplinary research into ageing covering expertise in biology/molecular genetics, chemistry, bioinformatics, medicine and epidemiology. Slagboom is head of the section and the longevity/ageing research. Population Epigenomics and Osteoarthritis research are headed by PIs Heijmans and Meulenbelt, respectively, the latter of which recently became a professor. The major theme linking these aspects of our research is the role of ageing in metabolic health and disease. Research populations in osteoarthritis and longevity have been designed and initiated over the past years supported by various grants from the 2nd and 3rd flow of money (ZonMw, NGI, the Heart Foundation, Dutch league against Rheumatism etc.).

Position in international context

For each of the main research themes – osteoarthritis, longevity/ageing and epigenetic epidemiology the position in international context is excellent, the PIs are frequently invited for lectures and key notes at a diversity of international conferences. We have taken part in international consortia and coordinated a large scale EU project successfully. We have intensive international collaborations (with groups in Australia, Sweden, Italy, France, the UK, the US and Germany). Slagboom is Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Biology of Ageing in Cologne. 

Content / highlights / achievements

In the past 5 years, we have successfully organised and supervised a large-scale BBMRI study into the methylome, transcriptome and metabolome, we intensified our bioinformatics expertise which allowed us in close collaboration with MedStat to analyse the data in a sophisticated way and publish in leading positions in high ranking journals (Nat Gen, Genome Biol, etc) with our genome-based work. We participated with the Leiden Longevity Study in many high scoring GWAS papers and were leading in worldwide longevity genetics studies and successfully coordinated a large scale EU project on ageing. Strategically, we have initiated a range of functional genomic studies into osteoarthritis including stem cell-based research, we created the largest biobank of affected and preserved cartilage samples, published in the top journals of the field and received multiple grants among which a VICI. As BBMRI board member, we initiated and coordinated the largest NMR-based metabolomics study in The Netherlands (50.000 samples measured) to set the stage for Molecular Epidemiology based on metabolomics. We selected a well standardized biomarker assay to be measured in all samples (from 30  cohorts) from which we generated a biological age predictor (metabo-age clock), a mortality indicator, we studied prediction of onset or progression in seven age-related diseases in BBMRI working groups (among which osteoarthritis) and we used the markerset to monitor the response to interventions (lifestyle, and in the clinic). Moreover, we lead the internationally unique population multiple genomics infrastructure encompassing over 4000 individuals from 6 Dutch biobanks (Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Groningen, Utrecht, Maastricht, Leiden). Exploitation of the infrastructure already yielded high-impact papers including ourselves as lead authors and it operates as a public resource to allow the scientific community to fully capitalize on its potential. By initiating and chairing the Dutch Society for Research on Ageing (DuSRA) we have co-created the NWA agenda for healthy ageing research by ZonMw, NWO and topsector Life Sciences and will be involved in coordinating novel programmes on ageing research in NL. 

Future themes

  • Further methodology development and integrated analysis of large sets of genomic data with quantitative biomarker data (disease specific and generic) collected in blood and tissues (of biobanks of populations, patients and in intervention studies). Disseminating tis knowledge a.o in the new Data Science Track of Biomedical Sciences. 
  • Understanding and beneficially influencing healthy ageing by investigating diverse etiological pathways in onset and progression of osteoarthritis and metabolic health (sarcopenia, heart failure and also basic mechanisms of ageing contributing to further organ failure with age,  such as kidneys).
  • The role of epigenetic regulation in pediatric health conditions. 
  • Implementing biomarkers of biological age and osteoarthritis in the clinic to classify elderly patients and assist in decision making based on expected resilience (in LUMC, Campus The Hague and broader). 

Cohesion within LUMC

Slagboom is PI of the Leiden Longevity study, home to PhD projects of Molepi and Gerontology and Geriatrics, which study has become positioned under the umbrella of the LUMC biobank committee in which we reside. Meulenbelt is PI of the GARP and RAAK patients studies jointly with Departments of Rheumatology and Orthopeadic Surgery. Slagboom is chair of LUMC Medical Research Profile on Ageing and board member and work package leader of the Netherlands Biobanking and Biomolecular Resources Infrastructure (BBMRI) which supports a considerable part of Data science in LUMC. Collaborations with several industries exist and our research is conducted in close collaborations with the departments of Rheumatology, Orthopaedic Surgery, Gerontology and Geriatrics, Human and Clinical Genetics, Cardiology and Pediatrics. Meulenbelt is Examinor MaBMS, member of the executive body of education (Operationeel Onderwijs Overleg; OOO) MaBMS, and Member of the master internship committee MaBMS (JRP1 and JRP2). We have deliberately intensified our involvement in education to promote Molecular Epidemiology and Data science in CRIP, the Master Vitality and Ageing and FOS courses.