Personalized nutrition has taken giant steps in seven years, observer says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Related tags personalized nutrition Personalization Research Biomarkers Nutrigenomics

True personalized nutrition and health care was a promise seven years ago. Now it’s a reality, and is moving into the implementation phase, an observer says.

Consultant Marc Brush spoke at the inaugural meeting of the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute seven years ago. At the time he was the editor of Nutrition Business Journal​.

Brush was invited back as an attendee this year by PLMI founder Dr Jeff Bland ND.  Brush said the difference in the atmosphere at this year’s event compared to the first go round was striking.

Extraordinary growth in seven years

“Seven years ago, it was, here’s this idea; wouldn’t it be cool if it worked?”​ Brush said. “Now it’s here and the question is how do you talk about it with consumers? How do you commercialize it?”

Formally titled the Thought Leaders Consortium, the event took place last week in Seattle. As the name suggests, the goal of the event was to bring together researchers and clinicians working on the cutting edge science and clinical applications in the space.

Brush said there was extraordinary breadth and depth to the agenda at this year’s conference.  The list of speakers included researchers from Harvard Medical School, Tufts University and the Scripps Institute. 

Topics included the application of systems biology to personalized medicine, the use of biomarkers, and global perspectives on microbiome health as well as the overall application of a personalized approach to health care.

Brush said of particular import was a presentation by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, PhD. Barabasi is a professor both at Northeastern University and the Harvard Medical School.  Barabasi said the study of genes as related to disease has moved far beyond the search for one marker that was common even just a few years ago.  There is enough information now to take a systems type of approach to managing disease states.

“They talked about having genetic information on 54 disease states,”​ Brush said. “There was talk about component pathways, about clusters of genes being involved, not just one genetic marker.”

“And Barabasi talked about what he called the ‘dark matter’ of nutrition. In the same way that dark matter makes up much of the universe and is someting we don’t track, Barabasi talked about how we only track about .5% of the nutrients in food, things like the vitamin and mineral content. He said that two thirds of the effects of nutiriton is associated with the 99.5% of the chemicals in food that we don’t track,” ​he said.

“So if you’re a genetic researcher, you know that only a small percentage of what’s going on is related to the genes you are tracking.  The good news for the supplement and food industries is what is left over, and all that you can do with lifestyle and nutrition,”​ Brush added.

Much of that information is being uncovered by what researchers are calling GWAS (pronounced GEE-wahs), or Genome-Wide Association Studies.  This type of analysis became possible with the first iteration of the human genome published in 2003.  In the years since, more than 36,000 studies mentioning GWAS in the title or description have been published on the PubMed database.  Just this year alone, more that 2,700 such studies have been added to the database.

Is supplement industry just along for the ride?

Brush said that the interesting, and perhaps unsettling notion for the dietary supplement industry is that to some degree it is along for the ride.

“The future of the dietary supplement industry is increasingly being dictated by people outside the industry.  It’s being driving by people like genetics researchers and microbiome researchers,”​ Brush said.

Brush said that one of the saving graces, and also the Achilles heel, of the personalized medicine approach is how it is moving away from a 1 to 1 equivalency on health care.  In other words, the idea of the past has been problem A is solved by drug B; disease A can be explained by genetic factor B.  The issues are now seen as far more complex.

“Personalized health care embraces that complexity. The pharmaceutical model was always one to one, and even some supplement studies could be seen as matching one natural ingredient to one condition.  There is a huge amount of data coming in, and whoever is able to process all that complexity of information will win.  The question for the supplement industry is does it have the scientific sophistication to do that?”​ Brush asked.

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