Can Scientists Tailor a Diet Just for You? The Promise of Nutritional Genomics

April 15, 2014 Edited by  
Filed under Biotechnology, Dietary Patterns

Nutritional science professionals make population-wide recommendations on nutrient intake. These are designed so that > 90% of individuals would meet dietary requirements if the guidelines were followed. However, this also means that some folks are consuming levels well above their individual requirements. Is this a bad thing? How would we know? What if scientists could determine the sequence your entire genome (DNA) and make specific, individualized nutrient intake recommendations based upon your genetic makeup? Sounds exciting, or even scary, doesn’t it? This seemingly futuristic possibility is closer that you might think.

The human genome, representing the full complement DNA found within the nucleus of every cell in the body, was sequenced in its entirety and the results reported in April 2003 (Nat’l Human Genome Res. Institute). This was the result of a massive, many-years-long effort that cost upwards of $2 billion. Having the complete sequence of the human genome is analogous to having the manual to a complicated piece of machinery or the blueprints of a building. The challenge though is to understand how to decipher the manual and how the various pieces and parts work together to coordinate human development, and relate to health and disease. The information from the Human Genome Project was made freely available on the internet and has since resulted in the discovery of >1800 disease genes, 2000 genetic tests for human conditions and 350 biotechnology-based products.

Scientists now envision being able to sequence an individual’s genome for ≤$1000 in the foreseeable future. While this presents enormous opportunities for disease prevention and management, it also presents a number of challenges and pertinent questions. How could your specific DNA sequence be used to your advantage? Could this information make you healthier or increase your lifespan? Moreover, how could this information be misused if it fell into the wrong hands. Who would have access, either legally or illegally?  How would your genomic information be protected? These are all relevant questions and concerns

Your DNA sequence could reveal your relative risk for developing certain diseases including heart disease, diabetes or cancer. It might also be used to provide you with personalized nutritional recommendations. For example, if you had genetic variations associated with heart disease, low intake of saturated fat and cholesterol would be recommended. Or, if your genetic blueprint suggested a risk for diabetes, a certain dietary pattern would be recommended along with an exercise plan to maintain a healthy body weight. You can imagine how others might also like access to these data. How about health or life insurance companies? Don’t you think they would like to know your propensity for developing certain diseases? What about prospective employers or colleges and Universities? Would your consent be required for your genome information to be released to these entities?

So, what do you think? When your doctor offers you the chance to have your genome sequenced, will you agree? Or, are you concerned about how this information could be misused against you? Having this information might allow you to reduce disease risk, or it could reveal a genetic defect that could not be fixed by diet or exercise. What then? The choice may be yours soon enough…to sequence or not to sequence (?), that is the question.

(written with the creative assistance of Marlene Navarro and Cynthia Sagayaraj, both University of Florida undergraduate students)

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