Irish Researcher to Lead Study on Personalized Nutrition

A University College Dublin scientist is to lead a major international research consortium that will study personalized nutrition, devising a person’s ideal diet based on their genetic make-up.

The €9 million four-year study will test whether it is possible to make nutritional choices by reading a person’s genes.

The consortium will be coordinated by Prof Mike Gibney, director of UCD’s Institute of Food and Health. The goal is to merge the scientific, sensory and socio-economic aspects and show whether personalized nutrition based on a person’s genes could deliver consumer benefits, Prof Gibney has said.

Researchers who will be involved in the Food4Me study discussed aspects of the project yesterday at the EuroScience Open Forum in Turin. The idea behind personalised nutrition arose after the release of the human genetic blueprint in 2000, said Josephine Wills of the EU food information council, who chaired the session.

It seemed a good idea, but “personalised nutrition has not delivered on its early promise”, she added.

This had not stopped companies from attempting to exploit the idea, however, according to Dr Ben van Ommen of TNO, the independent Dutch research institute.

This was a booming business, he said. One company offered to map a person’s genome and deliver a full report on disease risks, genetic traits and other health factors, he added. It even told the likely family origins 500 years in the past.

All the person had to do is spit into a small container and post the DNA-containing sample to the company. “Nothing painful, no blood and you get your results,” Dr van Ommen said. He took the test and then discussed the findings during his presentation.

Companies were moving quickly to develop consumer products and services of this kind, he added. The information returned, however, was often inaccurate.

“Genetics is not the only thing that tells me who I am,” he said. “You don’t give black-and-white advice on diet; nutrition is not simple.” Yet genetic analysis could help identify how a person responded to a food product.

The use of olive oil could help reduce cholesterol in 90 per cent of people, Dr van Ommen added, yet for 10 per cent of the population, the oil could actually raise cholesterol. A person’s reaction to caffeine was controlled by the genes they possessed.

He described research that analyzed the response of 35 people to a given diet. “People react differently to a healthy diet. They all reacted differently.”

Genetic analysis would have a profound effect on medical practice, Dr van Ommen said. “In 10 years’ time I will do e-health, I won’t go to a doctor.”

The patient would use sensors connected to a computer to upload medical information. “We are changing from public health to personalised health.”

Dr Barbara Stewart-Knox of the University of Ulster said there was no point in advancing the science of nutrigenomics if people did not understand it or did not want it. The public was not resistant to the idea, however.

She and colleagues surveyed 6,000 people and they found a majority were well disposed or indifferent to nutrition based on genes and a minority were opposed.

Dr Ulf Görman of the University of Lund in Sweden discussed the ethics surrounding personal nutrition, stressing that consumers must retain the right to accept or reject it.

He also warned of the dubious claims for products and services. He cited a US government accountability office analysis that found genetic testing offered over the web was misleading, medically unproven and ambiguous.

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