Prof. Dr. Nicole Probst-Hensch is the Head of the Department of Genetic Epidemiology of Non-Communicable Diseases at the Swiss TPH in Basel, Switzerland. She is one of six members of NAKO’s scientific advisory board, and has talked with us about her motivations to become an epidemiologist, the differences between NAKO and other cohort studies, and the role epidemiology will play in the future.
- Why did you become a scientist? Had you always planned to do so?
After my studies in pharmaceutical sciences at ETH Zürich, I had a strong interest in becoming a science journalist and communications expert. I joined the Roche communications team for a few years. This was right after the Schweizerhalle fire in Basel, which erased all fish in the river Rhine and created substantial air pollution also. It was thus an interesting time from an environmental health perspective. I was responsible for Roche’s first environmental report. This experience stimulated my scientific interest to become an environmental and chronic disease epidemiologist.
- How and why did you become a member of NAKO’s scientific advisory board?
I have established the only Swiss-wide population-based cohort and biobank in Switzerland, SAPALDIA, initiated more than 30 years ago with a focus on air pollution and respiratory health. Given the broad health effects of air pollution the focus of SAPALDIA also broadened. The long-term study became a resource for genome, exposome and aging research. With SAPALDIA I participated in several European-wide cohort consortia and collaborated with NAKO partners, most importantly Prof. Dr. Annette Peters and her research team. When being invited into the NAKO scientific advisory board, I was honored. NAKO is an important role model for the Swiss efforts to establish a large population-based cohort and biobank of at least 100’000 participants of all ages. Together with my Swiss public health colleagues I have laid out the plan in a recent White Paper that was accompanied by an editorial by Prof. Annette Peters (Probst-Hensch et al. Swiss Cohort & Biobank – The White Paper Pub Health Rev 2022 (PMID: 36619237); Peters A. Swiss Cohort & Biobank – an ambitious and timely large-scale cohort study. Int J Public Health 2023 (MID: 37006830)). From my side I hope to serve NAKO with a broad and long-term expertise in cohort and biobanking research.
- Have you already been involved in other epidemiological studies?
As outlined above, at the center of my cohort and biobanking activities is SAPALDIA, which provides also the basic design aspects for the planned Swiss Cohort & Biobank. I have also established a cohort with integrated biobank in remote Côte d’Ivoire, embedded into the health and demographpic surveillance site in Taabo, where 60’000 persons are under continuous surveillance since 2009. The Côte d’Ivoire Dual Disease Burden Cohort focuses on the interrelation between infectious and non-infectious age-related diseases and integrates biomarkers to investigate pathways linking the two. I furthermore established a primary care patient cohort in Kosovo as well as the COVCO-Basel cohort of over 10’000 participants in Basel to study the long-term impact of the pandemic and associated restrictions on mental health, lifestyle and wellbeing. In the light of the war in the Ukraine and the challenges related to climate change, following up on the mental wellbeing of the population is crucial.
- What are the key differences between NAKO and other cohort studies?
NAKO integrates the expertise of various scientific partners and can benefit from large cohorts and biobanks established abroad. This allows NAKO to combine international harmonization efforts with stand-alone modules that make it unique in specific domains. Being an exposome scientist myself, I know that NAKO has very strong partners in this scientific domain. The combination of genetic, other –omics and external exposome information with imaging of different organs will provide novel insights into pathways by which our environment influences our health.
- In your opinion, what role will epidemiology play in the future?
The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change teach us that public health interventions may well have more impact on population health than medical innovations in the future. Long-term effects of infections or environmental exposures including chemicals can only be studied in the context of observational epidemiology. Besides their relevance for understanding the etiology of diseases towards health promotion, cohorts integrating molecular and imaging biomarkers are also essential for evaluating the public health utility of novel screening biomarkers. Finally, epidemiology in the context of population-based cohorts is an important instrument to evaluate the functioning and quality of the health care system and to promote evidence-based health-in-all-policies.
- What do you expect from NAKO?
NAKO – in part by itself, in part in the context of international cohort consortia – will provide new insights into the etiology of aging and in particular the effects of environmental exposures and climate change. NAKO will also be essential for evaluating which imaging algorithms are of use in predicting diseases such as Alzheimer’s and which are not. NAKO is central for human biomonitoring and can make the link to long-term health effects. Finally, NAKO can importantly serve as surveillance tool for pandemic preparedness.