Nutrigenomics could lead personalized medicine revolution

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“Nutrigenomics has the potential to be the next big thing in our fight against lifestyle-linked diseases, says Professor Lynn Frewer, Professor of Food & Society in the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University in Britain.

Professor Frewer is considered a pioneer in the innovative new field of personal genomics. According to its proponents, an individual’s genes can be matched with body mass, age, sex and physical activity to determine what foods are best to eat, improving our nutritional profile. It has been estimated that approximately 80% of cases of cardiac disease, stroke, Type II diabetes and 40% of cancers could be avoided through improved diet and lifestyle choices.

She is also the lead researcher in a PLOS ONE study that suggests that despite the potential benefits of nutrigenomics, European’s reluctance to hand over personal data may prevent widespread adoption of a gene-guided nutrition program. Researchers originally thought fear surrounding GMO foods might be the biggest barrier.

“There’s an assumption in many communities that people are risk averse to food technologies such as GM and nutrigenomics. But actually, we found the opposite. The people we questioned could really see the benefits of this approach but said they were yet to be convinced that it would be worth the risk of handing over data about their DNA.”

Questioning 9,381 participants from nine European countries (Germany, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK) the Newcastle researchers were able to investigate the psychological factors influencing people’s willingness to adopt a personalised diet plan.

They found protection of consumers’ genetic data was a key limiting factor, particularly as there are only a handful of companies currently offering the service and these are run on a commercial basis.

“Guidelines around fat, sugar, alcohol and other foods are based on averages and they work very well – but they are just a guide,” explained Professor Frewer.

“The problem is that we are all unique so, for example, one woman’s ability to metabolise sugar might be wildly different from another’s, even though on the outside they are both 50 years old, of similar height and weight and exercise regularly.

“The difference is in their genes and with nutrigenomics we can start to delve down into these differences and tailor dietary plans for the individual. It’s incredibly exciting but we need to get the regulations in place first if it is going to make an impact on public health.”