New scoring system could pave the way to predicting future health outcomes

By analysing the blood of over 9000 of our volunteers, researchers may have found a new way to predict when some health conditions might develop.

DNA building

Chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes place large burdens on healthcare systems. They can greatly reduce an individual’s quality of life as they age.

Blood tests can help to identify people with a high chance of developing age-related health conditions.  For example, proteins in the blood play important roles in our bodies. By analysing blood, we can also detect chemical additions to our DNA (termed DNA methylation, an epigenetic modification) that can help to turn genes on and off. These chemical additions can be reversed and are thought to record the body’s response to a range of environmental and biological stressors. They can affect both the levels of proteins in the blood and the chances a person has of developing a health condition.

Scores that use DNA methylation data from points across the human genome have been developed for a few blood proteins. However, no study has methodically developed these epigenetic scores for proteins on a large scale and related them to diseases.

In this study, researchers combined epigenetic and protein data from the blood of over 700 volunteers from the German KORA and Scottish Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 projects to generate epigenetic scores for proteins. From the 953 proteins tested, 109 scores explained between 1% and 58% of the variation in blood protein levels.

Researchers then investigated whether these 109 epigenetic scores for proteins – which they refer to as protein ‘EpiScores’ – associated with the onset of 12 health conditions in over 9000 Generation Scotland volunteers, over a follow-up period of up to 14 years. The health conditions included diabetes, stroke, depression, Alzheimer’s dementia, various cancers and inflammatory conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

They found that protein EpiScores predicted the onset of a range of age-related morbidities. Importantly, the associations with type 2 diabetes reflected findings from previous studies that had used measured proteins. Therefore, protein episcores capture a biological signal, relevant to health conditions, that could be used to identify people with a high chance of getting certain health conditions. This may help us to better intervene and stop people developing health conditions as they age.

Epigenetic scores for the circulating proteome as tools for disease prediction

Are you a researcher who wants to find out how to use the episcores in your own cohorts? Take a look at this video below which provides a tutorial on how.