In the third part of our special on Nutrigenomics, we speak with Dr Ben van Ommen executive director of NuGO (Nutrigenomics Organization), and head of nutrigenomics at TNO Quality of Life, who says that the field of nutrigenomics is focused on the need for biomarkers that capture health improvements, rather then health deterioration.
“This is a concept that originates from the nutrigenomics community,” says van Ommen.
“There is major interest from society and from industry in the area. It’s part of a major societal change, where personal health is becoming an important issue. The question is; is the science up to it?” he added.
NuGo is an organization which provides a network for researchers and organizations to, enabling them to disseminate information and work together to learn more about nutrigenomics.
Passion for health
Speaking with NutraIngredients, van Ommen said that that his passion in life “is to make the population healthier, through any means.” He added that this means exploiting systems biology, and understanding physiology “in all of its detail.”
“If you want to study the influence of diet on health, then you need to be able to measure very carefully, because the effects are subtle. You just don’t see major change,” explained van Ommen.
Looking at the genetics and gene expression is part of one part of the search for more information; van Ommen explains that is important to see all of the “subtleties in the processes that are taking place in an organ or tissue in the body.”
However he adds that the real challenge is knowing what to do we do with the masses of data coming out of nutrition and nutrigenomic studies in the future.
However as this knowledge base grows, van Ommen suggests that we will begin to build up data sets that will not just be useful for meta-analysis of study outcomes, “but to bring the data together and do full analysis of the overall data.”
“Suppose we could analyze gene expression analysis in white blood cells, for all trials that have used omega-3 fatty acids … We would not just be looking at the phenotypic outcomes, or at biomarkers, but we could look at every single detail,” explained van Ommen.
However, he warned that another major challenge in the field of nutrigenomics is “a conceptual innovation challenge.”
“So far nutrition has used classic biomarkers borrowed from biomedical areas, LDL-cholesterol, inflammatory markers, for example … But if we want to maintain health, or even better to optimize health, then these biomedical markers are essentially worthless,” he argued.
“These values are markers of ill health; if I am not ill then they will be ‘normal’; they do not tell me anything else… So then how do we measure if health improves, rather than health deteriorates?” added van Ommen.
Challenging the system
Dr van Ommen explained that the concept of using a challenge or stress test “is essential for quantifying optimal health.”
“The role of nutrition is to make sure that I can cope with challenges, changes, and stress … So therefore use the concept of a stress test to determine the role of diet in aspects of optimal physiology,” he said.
“This involves developing a nutrigenomics based stress test; to challenge for example the immune system, and measure all inflammatory biomarkers … This is what we need,” said van Ommen.
He said that by measuring over 100 proteins, and more than 200 lipid markers, nutrigenomics can “really tell us what is going on in detail.”
“This way we capture the subtleties of a response,” he said.
“Our strategy is that in the next two years we will have a solid base, from proof of principle and human intervention studies … Through this we hope to demonstrate the optimization of health using nutrigenomic based stress tests,” explained van Ommen.
He said that after this the second phase will be to demonstrate these benefits for dietary products and the following interactions with regulator agencies.