Science fiction or science fact? Could we soon be stopping off for a quick genetic test to let us know which foods and supplements to take to reduce our risks of certain diseases?
This is one of the aims of nutrigenomics, the science looking at understanding the molecular basis of the interaction of individual nutrients on both genetics and metabolism of the consumer.
According to Manuela Rist, Uwe Wenzel and Hannelore Daniel from the Technical University of Munich, food science and nutritional research have been historically geared towards metabolites.
In a review, published on-line in Trends in Biochemistry (doi: 10.1016/j.tibtech.2006.02.001), the researchers explain: "Every nutritional process relies on the interplay of a large number of proteins, which are encoded by the respective mRNA molecules expressed in a certain cell, organ or organism."
Changes to mRNA and the corresponding proteins can control the transport of a certain nutrient or metabolite in a biochemical pathway.
"The applications of transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics technologies in nutritional studies seem unlimited when it comes to basic and preclinical research in either cell cultures or animal models," wrote the researchers.
However, when applied to human studies there are undoubtedly limitations and implications.
This is a young subject that is only beginning to find its feet. Some sections in the food and nutrition industries are reported to already see nutrigenomics as a integral part of their long-term growth.
Indeed, DSM has been ivesting in Nutrigenomics since 2004.
Jan Zuidam, vice-chairman of DSM's managing board said in 2004: "The rapidly progressing science of nutrigenomics is not only used to develop new nutrients and understand how they work in the human body, but is also expected to open ways for 'personalised nutrition'.This field fits perfectly with our ambition in the field of life sciences innovation."
Many countries have begun their own nutrigenomic projects to get a head start in the field. New Zealand and the Netherlands both have national programs, while the European Nutrigenomics Organisation (NuGO) is funded by the EU.
In the US, several universities have established centers of excellence, like the University of California, Davis and Pen State University.
But at present, the technology is not ready to fully exploit this fledgling science.
Rist and colleagues point out that more powerful bioinformatics and chemometrics need to be developed to cope with the ever increasing mountain of data that studies are beginning to generate.
There is also debate about which method is better. The NuGO recently published an article in the British Journal of Nutrition (Vol. 94, pp. 302-314) that said proteomics was more useful than transcriptomics because: "it directly assesses the entities that carry out the biological functions."
Rist and colleagues concluded: "In terms of the development of health-promoting and functional foods that specifically target a metabolic process to slow disease progression and reduce risk, metabolic-marker profiles need to guide product development in an evidence-based manner.
The time has now arrived to take the new technologies into well-defined human intervention trials and large-scale cohort studies - these studies seem to warrant concerted and collaborative action by academia and industry,"
Dr. Andrew Shao, vice president of regulatory and scientific affairs at the US Council for Responsible Nutrition, recently told NutraIngredients-USA.com: "With nutrigenomics, this is looking to the horizon. There are a lot of knowledge gaps, particularly in terms of what the research is saying and what is actually possible."
Shao mentioned that nutrigenomics was a controversial issue, particularly in terms of personal privacy. There are not many more personal pieces of information than your own genetic make-up.
"There are vast array of opportunities, but what are the implications?" asked Shao.
The CRN is hosting a one-day symposium in June to discuss, amongst other things, nutrigenomics. Three sessions are planned: Science and Technological Progress and Remaining Obstacles, Possible Approaches for Commercialisation, and Privacy and Regulatory Implications.