Maps of how the environment impacts people's health

Thomas Hankemeier is a professor of analytical biosciences at Leiden University. He is one of the driving forces behind Exposome-Scan, a new research lab aimed at mapping the impact of various environmental factors on people's health. Hankemeier conducts fundamental biochemical research and works on its applications by creating spin-offs or initiating collaborations, showcasing what is possible.

Thomas Hankemeier is pleased to work at the university. "At a university, we have the freedom to conduct fundamental science and develop new ideas. Things that are too risky for businesses can still be done at the university. We can safely experiment with new ideas and sometimes even fail. While many researchers at the university stop when fundamental science is done, we continue to bring ideas to the market and create innovative applications that can truly benefit people."

Freedom to develop 

The further development of fundamental scientific ideas can take various forms. For example, by applying for patents and seeking collaboration with existing companies. But sometimes there is no existing company to bring a new concept to the market. In such cases, Hankemeier and colleagues establish their own enterprise. This was the case with Mimetas, a Leiden-based company that develops and builds organ models. A third possibility is to collaborate with scientific partners, join a consortium, and take the step towards large-scale research facilities.

An example of such a large research facility is Exposome-Scan. "This will be a brand-new lab where we can analyze hundreds of thousands of samples daily. These are factors to which we are exposed daily, such as food and chemicals in the air. But we also measure blood samples to see the influence of all these external factors inside our bodies. This way, we can find out what drives health and disease. Setting up something of this scale is not something we can do alone. In Leiden, we excel at biochemical measurements. But in this case, cooperation with scientists from Utrecht University is crucial because they are very skilled at measuring all these external factors."

"In collaboration with the Arbo Unie, we hope to start a first study soon on the exposure of workers to harmful substances. Every year, there are fatalities due to dangerous substances at work. This applies to employees of chemical companies but also, for example, to painters or construction workers. We all ingest chemicals daily, but some substances are more dangerous than others. If we can map these differences and then intervene, it could be very valuable."