New Scientist questions personalised nutrition testing

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags New scientist Genetics Nutrigenomics

Companies offering personalised nutrition testing are jumping the
gun because the science behind nutrigenomics is not enough to
support the claims, says an article in New Scientist.

Nutrigenomics, seen by some as the future of nutrition, is defined as how food and ingested nutrients affect genes. The science is still in its infancy but several companies are already offering genetic tests to physicians and consumers to help them plan personal nutrition based on their genetic profile, with prices reportedly ranging from $100 to $1000.

These tests however are no different from "discussing family history with a physician and taking a few blood tests [in order to]… give you a similar or more accurate snapshot of your current health - and without the hefty price tag."

This is the conclusion of Bijal Trivedi, a freelance science writer based in Washington DC, who wrote the article for the New Scientist. The article appeared in the weekly print edition to published January 20. The New Scientist print edition sells an average 170,000 copies around the world.

Nutrigenomics is a new science and was only named in 1999. But "no sooner had nutrigenomics got off the ground than eager biotech companies began mining the results of newly published papers and translating them into over-the-counter tests,"​ wrote Trivedi.

The article cites four personalised nutrition companies - Sciona, Genelex, Market America, and Suracell - that were named by the US Government Accountability Office in July for having "misled consumers by making predictions that are medically unproven and so ambiguous that they do not provide meaningful information."

This view is reported to be shared by Robert Nussbaum, chief of the medical genetics division at the University of California, San Francisco. "I don't think [results from these tests] is information worth having… I wouldn't trust any of it,"​ Nussbaum told New Scientist.

This was echoed by Jose Ordovas, direction of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at Tufts University, who is quoted as saying: "The genetic component [of a complex disease] is split among10, 20, 50, 100 genes or more, and you are being tested for one.

"Remember, you can go wrong with one of your genes but you may be blessed with another set of genes that compensate,"​ he said.

The overall view of the academics interviewed, which also included researchers from John Hopkins University and Harvard, is that the science is not enough to justify the claims, and that no clinical trial has yet shown that nutritional supplements could overcome genetic variations.

The lack of clinical studies should not be seen as a burden, or a proof of the efficacy of the personalised nutrition tests, said Howard Coleman, CEO of Genelex, who told Trivedi: "There needs to be a symmetry between the level of proof and the risk associated with something.

"The clinical-trial standard is the standard you need to have if you are going to give somebody a dangerous drug. Remember, this is just a harmless test. [Dietary interventions] are helpful but can do no harm.

"An expert in this area… may say it is too soon or that it is not worth the money but they won't say it is worthless. We are at the early stages of this - we are playing Pong and transitioning to Pac-Man,"​ he said in the article.

Rosalynn Gill-Garrison, co-founder and CSO for Sciona assured Trivedi that there is currently enough information available to justify the results and advice given from taking a personalised nutrition test.

"If we claimed we were going to make you live 100 years or prevent the development of a particular disease, I would agree with them [the critics of the tests], but on the other hand if we are providing personalised info to help you control cholesterol levels because of particular sensitivities you have based on your genetics - absolutely there is enough information,"​ she said.

Reacting independently to the New Scientist article, Dr. Siân Astley, communications manager for the European Nutrigenomics Organisation (NuGO), told that Trivedi's reporting was fair.

"The very existence of NuGO is a demonstration that nutrigenomics is a young science and that there is a need to pool together the expertise to overcome the fragmentation of research. For the moment, the science is not there.

"However, it is way too early to dismiss the potential of nutrigenomics for public health and personal health, be that personalised nutrition or not."

Source: New Scientist​ 20 January 2007, Pages 34-37 "Hungry genes?"​ Author: Bijal Trivedi

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