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Social and ethical issues arising from Nutrigenomics. Julian Heyes. The essence of nutrigenomics. Genetic risk factors plus environmental factors lead to physiological outcomes health and wellbeing disease Our lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, smoking etc) are very important.

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the essence of nutrigenomics
The essence of nutrigenomics
  • Genetic risk factors plus environmental factors lead to physiological outcomes
  • health and wellbeing
  • disease
  • Our lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, smoking etc) are very important
genetic risk factors
Genetic risk factors
  • Small modifications to our genes and chromosomes:
  • single nucleotide polymorphisms
  • copy number variants
  • epigenetic alterations such as methylation; exercise reducing telomere shortening
  • Powerful new technique:
  • Genome-wide association scan
  • pinpoint genetic risk factors
  • type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, breast cancer...
dietary modification of risk
Dietary modification of risk
  • Our lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, smoking etc) are very important:
  • both for ourselves
  • and for our children (epigenetics)

Agouti mice: yellow fur, prone to obesity and diabetes

Added genistein to mother’s diet, led to increased gene methylation

and increased frequency of normal offspring

Dolinoy et al. 2006


Centre of Excellence in Nutrigenomics

Nutrigenomics New Zealand is a strategic collaboration between AgResearch Limited, The University of Auckland, and Plant & Food Research.

With a scientific programme addressing the key areas of nutrigenomics, the Centre performs high-quality research and knowledge transfer in an international context.



Tailoring New Zealand foods to match people’s genes

nutrigenomics new zealand
Nutrigenomics New Zealand

Functional SNP, L503F, in Na-dependent Organic Cation Transporter (OCTN1) is risk factor for Crohn’s in some populations

Substrate = ergothioneine; particularly high in mushrooms

genotype matters
Genotype matters...

Frequency of Crohn’s disease cases with specific genotypes reporting adverse effects from mushrooms

Petermann et al. 2009

summary so far
Summary so far
  • Different individuals respond to foods in different ways
  • May affect risk of developing serious maturity-onset diseases
  • Maternal diet may alter children’s disease risk
  • At present: only a handful of strong associations known
  • Guarantee there will be rapid growth in our knowledge of this area

A public health issue

Apolipoprotein A1 (APOA1) participates in the reverse transport of cholesterol from tissues to the liver

  • Individualized nutritional
  • advice (822 women):
  • Carriers of the A allele:
  • PUFA intake to  HDL

and reduce CVD risk

whereas G/G women should receive the opposite advice!

Ordovas et al. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. (2002)

some social or ethical issues
Some social or ethical issues
  • Who will advise people about their genetic risk and possible dietary modifications?
  • Will employers or insurers want to know and use this information?
  • What if screening becomes common:
  • parents’ response at or before birth?
  • right not to be informed... unless risk of ‘serious and imminent harm’
  • whose genome? my knowledge affects the whanau
commercial gain
Commercial gain
  • Who will benefit from nutrigenomics research?
  • Proprietary foods: who profits?
  • Are companies overstating current knowledge?

The burden of knowledge

Will (partial) knowledge lead to unnecessary lifestyle impoverishment?

Pregnant mums: fetal alcohol syndrome

‘My mother made me a type II diabetic’

  • Donald Evans, 2005: Ethics and nutrigenomics; oral paper at International Conference on Nutrigenomics and Gut Health, May 1-3 2006.
  • David Castle and Nola Ries, 2007: Ethical, legal and social issues in nutrigenomics: the challenges of regulating service delivery and building health professional capacity. Mutation Research 622: 138-143.