Nutrigenomics, defined as how food and ingested nutrients affect genes, is still in its infancy and Dr Ben van Ommen from TNO Quality of Life in the Netherlands told attendees at the Geneva PalExpo that numerous challenges still needed to be overcome.
Van Ommen made reference to recent results from large intervention trials and meta-analyses, such as the WHI dietary fat trial, claiming such studies were, one by one, removing established pillars of nutrition. Some experts have severely questioned the methodology and design of these studies, but van Ommen said that the "disappointing" results were due to focussing on the masses and not the individuals.
"By adding more people to a study we are blurring the genetic behaviour. We must exploit the many subtle differences related to early changes in the disease onset process," he said.
Van Ommen said that, instead of doing one experiment on 50 people, it would be more beneficial to our understanding to perform 50 experiments on one person.
This 'personalised nutrition' approach is at the heart of nutrigenomics, and companies like Sciona, Interleukin Genetics, WellGen, and DSM Personalised Nutrition are already commercially active in this field.
WellGen's Julie Hirsch, who gave a presentation entitled, "Nutrigenomics, Obesity, and Natural Products", explained that single gene diseases such as sickle cell anemia were not the focus of the discipline. It is the polygenic diseases such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes that are the focus of nutrigenomics.
But Hirsch stressed that the idea of personalised nutrition is a subset of nutrigenomics termed nutrigenetics - "How hereditable genetic make-up predisposes a response to nutrition."
WellGen, said Hirsch, is focussing on obesity, a highly complex disease that represents "a ripe business opportunity" with over one billion people obese worldwide.
WellGen's focus has been on a select handful of the 430 or so genes, markers and chromosomal regions that have been linked to human obesity phenotypes.
Hirsch's research has centred on adipocytes, the body's fat cells. By switching the expression of genes in adipocyte development, WellGen aim to inhibit the fat cells and cut obesity.
And Hirsch said that WellGen have identified a proprietary natural extract that has been shown to inhibit six of the seven adipocyte gene expressions.
While clearly excited by this result, Hirsch refused to admit having "found the holy grail".
The overwhelming note of caution from the Vitafoods presentation was that, despite advances in knowledge of the genome and promising early results, the subject of nutrigenomics is still very much in its infancy.
"Awareness is very low," said Hirsch. "And the tools are not there yet."
Dr van Ommen agreed and called for multidisciplinary collaborations. "Fortunately, a number of regional and global initiatives support these developments, such as the European Nutrigenomics Organisation (NuGO), and the future looks bright for nutritional systems biology," he said.
But tools and knowledge are the not the only challenges to this young science. There are ethical and privacy concerns, with critics asking what safeguards would be in place to protect someone's genetic information. Some argue that there is nothing more personal than one's own genetic code.