Nutrigenomics initiative aims for ‘personalized nutrition’

Oct 1st, 2009 | By | Category: Issue, October 1, 2009, Research

Imagine a physician or dietitian handing you a set of individualized nutritional guidelines based on your unique genetic makeup – one that could help you ward off such diseases as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

That’s the ultimate goal of the Nebraska Gateway for Nutrigenomics, a new research initiative at UNL. It aims to use genome-based technologies to figure out what makes individuals and some ethnic groups susceptible to certain diseases and develop nutritional strategies to overcome those susceptibilities.

“In the old days we used to say ‘my grandfather ate bacon and eggs everyday and still lived to 103.’ Those of us in the business would say, ‘that’s just genetics,’ and we’d dismiss it,” said Tim Carr, nutrition scientist. “We’re no longer dismissing it. We’re trying to figure out how that works.”

Individuals’ risk for certain diseases depends in part on their genetic makeup. Although those genetic makeups can’t be altered, how they behave can be manipulated by diet. That’s what nutrigenomics is all about.

“Looking at the genetic makeup of individuals, you can identify certain risk factors and make dietary recommendations,” said Janos Zempleni, a molecular nutritionist who heads UNL’s nutrigenomics initiative.

In February, a review team comprising scientists from several other universities noted that UNL is well positioned to be a leader in this burgeoning research field because it can integrate its plant-genomics expertise with its nutrition and food-science expertise. As food and nutrition scientists determine how diet interacts with the genome, agricultural scientists will be able to develop crops and livestock to put those findings into action.

“Since Nebraska is where America’s diet begins, it is appropriate that UNL would be a leader in the nutrigenomic field,” the team said in its report.

UNL food scientist Vicki Schlegel, another member of the research team, put it this way: “You’re making agriculture a pharmacy, basically.”

Schlegel imagines a day when states might carve niches for certain kinds of health-boosting crops.

“We might say, ‘in Nebraska we grow crops for heart health,'” she said. “Colorado might say, ‘we grow crops to fight diabetes.'”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s diet guidelines are based on nutritional needs, said Schlegel, who specializes in neutraceuticals. “What we’re talking about is a step beyond. This is considering foods from a more complex perspective.”

“This is a huge shift in thinking,” Carr said. “We are going from one-size-fits-all recommendations to a realization that one size doesn’t fit all.”

As scientists determine how nutrients and genes interact, they’ll be able to take a patient’s genetic profile and have a dietitian prescribe a diet and bioactive compounds to fit that profile.

“In short, we’ll have personalized nutrition,” Carr said.

The nutrigenomics team’s research is digging even deeper. Angela Pannier, a biomedical engineer, is studying how nutrition affects tissue engineering – the regrowing of tissue as a replacement for tissue lost to disease or injury.

Pannier hopes to determine how diets might be altered to give a newly transplanted “engineered tissue” a better chance to survive.

“No one else is looking at this … I think this could be groundbreaking,” Pannier said.

While the nutrigenomics initiative is only about a year old, it’s built on research that’s been conducted at UNL for years. The team comprises about 30 scientists from 11 departments, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

Plans are being made for additional hires to complete the team, and UNL hopes to obtain funding to renovate building space.

— By Dan Moser, IANR News Service

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