by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted July 14, 2007 in Nutrigenomics
Please welcome guest author Rachel C. Dechenne to Eye on DNA today. She is an expert in food policy and conducts research on the governance and ethics of food and health-related genomics at Egenis, ESCR Centre of Genomics in Society, University of Exeter.
I have typed nutrigenomics in Google today. It scores royally: 370,000 entries. When I started working on this issue three years ago, it was more like a few hundred at best. Despite the hype surrounding it, the translation of this new platform of knowledge in commercialization is still quite premature. The large majority of scientists working in the field (which is still tiny but growing extremely fast (1)) recognizes it. This is mainly because the mass data on human polymorphism intervention are not there. We only have very few long-term observational studies to relate dietary intakes of food and nutrients to the occurrence of chronic disease. In the case of minerals and vitamins, Randomized Clinical Trials (RTC) are, unfortunately, not totally adequate. However, new tools using algorithm rather than individual genes to determine the interaction between an individual genetic mapping and his/her dietary habits are being developed as we speak.
Development is on its way, but still very far from the nutrition revolution claimed by a bunch of very enthusiastic people. The quality of the science itself is not questioned, its transfer into commercial application is. At this stage, Nutrigenomics is still a promissory science, like genetic engineering in the mid-90â€™. It is the subject of lots of expectations and promises but its acceptance by consumers around the globe will depend on its grounding in social reality. Its proponents are now surfing on a new wave. They are offering a science based alternative to the failure of big pharma to tackle chronic disease. But to be trusted the transfer of the nutrigenomics into commercial product needs to respond to peopleâ€™s expectations.
We are currently witnessing how the nutrigenomics community is building its social reality. The package â€œgenetic testing plus dietary recommendationsâ€ sold direct to consumers was the first nutrigenomics-based product to hit the market five years ago. Although today with clear potential for very specific conditions, it has not yet proved to have great benefits for a wider base hence the regulatory benchmark speeding up. But with patent No.7, 238,376 issued by the US Patent and Trademark Office on 3 July 2007 the next generation of nutrigenomics-based product enters the world market in the form of a proprietary ingredient. â€œBlack Tea Extract for Prevention of Diseaseâ€ covers the use of WG0401 for arthritis, inflammation and cancer. WellGen Inc., its owners, will begin marketing WG0401 to the nutritional supplement industry, where products for joint health have grown into a billion-dollar industry.
This is going to change the face of the functional food industry, providing it with the â€œscientific foundationsâ€ (2) for its wider ambitions. My concern is that almost no research has been done on the broad societal implications of this type of nutrigenomics-developed products including their impacts on consumerâ€™s perception of official dietary patterns. What about its impact on captive audience in lower socio-economic population in the North and in emerging countries? Will they being able to buy these new superfoods? Would this bring a more fatalistic attitude towards eating unhealthy food? Could this new trend lead to further confusing public perceptions regarding a healthy diet based on natural products? Lots of questions need answer but the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) of nutrigenomics commercialization are not sexy enough to attract big fundingâ€¦so a handful of academics and researchers are stretching their tiny resources to do something about it! I was at an ELSI workshop organized by Egenis (4) at Exeter University last month which was mainly on genetic testing and I am invited to another by SweGene (5) at Lund University next month.
It is not too late, but there is a lot of convincing to do!
(2)Kannapolis, Future US centre for nutrigenomics research?: http://www.salisburypost.com/area/294354862953261.php
(3) This is questionable when most experts say the science is still too premature.
(4)Egenis Centre: http://www.centres.ex.ac.uk/egenis/events/Nutrigenomicsworkshop.htm
(5)SweGene Centre: http://www.swegene.org/bioetik/SWEGENE_bioetik_eng.html
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