British Nutrition Foundation annual lecture: Chips with everything? Nutritional genomics and the application of diet in disease prevention


Professor Christine M. Williams, Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition, School of Food Biosciences, University of Reading, Reading RG6 6AP, UK.


The development of high throughput techniques (‘chip’ technology) for measurement of gene expression and gene polymorphisms (genomics), and techniques for measuring global protein expression (proteomics) and metabolite profile (metabolomics) are revolutionising life science research, including research in human nutrition. In particular, the ability to undertake large-scale genotyping and to identify gene polymorphisms that determine risk of chronic disease (candidate genes) could enable definition of an individual's risk at an early age. However, the search for candidate genes has proven to be more complex, and their identification more elusive, than previously thought. This is largely due to the fact that much of the variability in risk results from interactions between the genome and environmental exposures. Whilst the former is now very well defined via the Human Genome Project, the latter (e.g. diet, toxins, physical activity) are poorly characterised, resulting in inability to account for their confounding effects in most large-scale candidate gene studies. The polygenic nature of most chronic diseases offers further complexity, requiring very large studies to disentangle relatively weak impacts of large numbers of potential ‘risk’ genes. The efficacy of diet as a preventative strategy could also be considerably increased by better information concerning gene polymorphisms that determine variability in responsiveness to specific diet and nutrient changes. Much of the limited available data are based on retrospective genotyping using stored samples from previously conducted intervention trials. Prospective studies are now needed to provide data that can be used as the basis for provision of individualised dietary advice and development of food products that optimise disease prevention. Application of the new technologies in nutrition research offers considerable potential for development of new knowledge and could greatly advance the role of diet as a preventative disease strategy in the 21st century. Given the potential economic and social benefits offered, funding for research in this area needs greater recognition, and a stronger strategic focus, than is presently the case. Application of genomics in human health offers considerable ethical and societal as well as scientific challenges. Economic determinants of health care provision are more likely to resolve such issues than scientific developments or altruistic concerns for human health.