Open Science is an increasingly important movement across many disciplines. It involves initiatives and resources that make scientific research – including data, publications and software – freely accessible not just to researchers but to society as a whole.
The MRC Epidemiology Unit is committed to Open Science as a means to make our research more accessible, equitable, transparent and reproducible, and to the development of standards and platforms to facilitate this.
The Omicscience webserver is one of the Unit’s Open Science initiatives. Omicscience is a publicly available web resource that was set up in 2020 by Professor Claudia Langenberg and Dr Maik Pietzner at the MRC Epidemiology Unit, along with Dr Gabi Kastenmüller at Helmholtz Munich. Omicscience promotes clinical translation through rapid open access to results and resources from large scale proteomics, genomics and metabolomics studies. These range from the genetic architecture of human proteins that interact with the COVID-19 virus, to human genome variants that are associated with changes in the levels of individual metabolites (substances made or used when the body breaks down food, chemicals, or its own tissue).
A recent Science paper that used data from an MRC Epidemiology Unit study provides a good example of how Open Science platforms can support innovative research in practice.
Can taurine slow aging?
Earlier this month an international team of scientists led by Dr Vijay Yada at Columbia University in New York published a paper in Science reporting that studies in mice and monkeys indicate supplementation of the diet with taurine – an amino acid used in many energy drinks – may slow the aging process. Their findings received international media coverage, including in the Guardian, Time Magazine, The New York Times, El Pais, NBC News, and Hindustan Times, and provoked a lot of discussion.
But do their findings in animals apply to humans? One important question the authors asked was if there was any evidence that circulating taurine levels in humans are associated with age-related health conditions.
Examining the link between taurine and aging in EPIC-Norfolk
To examine this question the authors of the Science paper needed to access data from a large study where not only circulating levels of taurine and its metabolites have been measured, but also clinical risk factors such as BMI, waist-hip-ratio, type 2 diabetes prevalence and measures of inflammation and liver function.
They were able to analyse this data in almost 12,000 participants from the EPIC-Norfolk Study, a large epidemiological study established almost thirty years ago and now run by the MRC Epidemiology Unit. The researchers found that higher levels of circulating taurine and taurine metabolites were associated with several important biological markers of aging in EPIC-Norfolk, results that were consistent with taurine deficiency contributing to aging in humans.
Omicscience is Open Science
It is often still the case that researchers who want to analyse data from large epidemiological studies or clinical trials have to apply to the organisations who manage those studies, specifying what data they wish to analyse and what analyses they will run. The application is then reviewed and if approved the data is made available, taking care to ensure that the privacy and personal data of study participants is protected. This process can be time consuming for all parties involved.
However, rather than having to seek permission to access EPIC-Norfolk data, the researchers in this study were able to download summary statistics from the Omicscience webserver. This allowed them to quickly analyse profiles of circulating metabolites, and the links between them and markers of aging, among the 11,966 participants. They did not need to ask us if they could download this data: all we asked is that they cite the associated Nature Medicine paper by Maik Pietzner et al.
Open Science at the MRC Epidemiology Unit
Professor Nick Wareham, Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit, comments:
We believe that by making our research findings available in this way we can accelerate scientific discovery and the development of innovative therapies.”
Omicscience is not the Unit’s only Open Science initiative. Others include the Measurement Toolkit, providing resources or measurement of dietary intake, physical activity and energy expenditure, and anthropometry and body composition; and the Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT), which provides an evidence base to inform cycling investment. And more than 95% of Unit-led publications are open access.
You can find links to several of our Open Science resources here.