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Now that we can analyze genetic diversity at the molecular level, how will consumers benefit?

Special to SupplementQuality.com
10 April 2001
by Peter Everett

With the publication of the first draft of the human genome, researchers have identified 1.4 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), the points in the genome where individuals differ in their genetic sequence. (See sidebar for explanation of SNPs.) Drug developers are wasting no time in investigating the implications of this molecular-scale genetic diversity as a means to predict how different pharmaceuticals will work in individuals.

Just as each of us differs in our outward appearance, our diversity is reflected in our genome and in the enzymes produced by those genes. Alterations in a single amino acid can make an enormous difference in how quickly a particular enzyme can catalyze the metabolism of drugs and other highly bioactive substances. This includes all the molecules used by the body, such as those found in food.

Understanding genetic diversity of individuals

Consider the potential of being able to trace the absorption and use of substances at the genetic level when one person breaks down vitamin C at four times the rate of another. Or suppose someone stores iron at ten times the normative rate, or is unable to properly metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine, a substance made memorable by its presence on warning labels for products containing aspartame. Such knowledge of genetic diversity has enormous implications for analyzing and optimizing nutrition on an individual basis.

Drawing parallels between molecular-scale diversity and its application in developing individualized nutrition profiles puts widely popularized (if somewhat suspect) nutritional concepts like "Recommended Dietary Allowances" (RDAs) and "Safe Upper Levels" (ULs) for vitamins and minerals into a more realistic perspective. What, for instance, if the Institute of Medicine were to publish a "recommended shoe size," or a "maximum safe eyeglass prescription?"

At present, these "guidelines" reflect nothing more than population averages and arbitrary safety margins. At best, they serve as a starting point for further refinement according to individual needs. Government authorities, testing organizations, and producers of drugs and nutritionals are now recognizing that the publication of SNPs is changing the whole science of administering substances to people.

Wide potential benefits of SNP knowledge

Pharmaceutical manufacturers, driven by the rewards to be gained in making products safer and more effective, will seek to correlate the bioactivity of their products with a wide array of SNPs. We should recognize, however, that the potential benefits of doing the same with foods and dietary supplements offers similar rewards, and in many instances at dramatically lower cost to the consuming public than through pharmaceuticals.

This is in part because people eat every day from birth, and because nutritional supplementation is, on average, substantially less expensive than costly pharmaceuticals. It also recognizes a truism: most people are healthy much of the time. Being able to enhance nutrition with a science-based model tied directly to individual needs has implications for everything from personal well-being to national productivity.

Producers of all three classes of product, along with those who recommend and consume them, will benefit from the newfound science of SNPs. Imagine a world in which we know exactly how much of a vitamin or mineral we need for optimal health and energy; imagine a time when we can match our wellness needs with a precise understanding of just how much of a low-cost, highly effective botanical we need to combat a cold.

Customized nutrition and health care

Who will lead the movement towards optimal, individualized nutrition based on the newly found insights offered by single-nucleotide polymorphisms? What rewards will be gained by consumers? Just as commercial testing organizations focused on product quality are emerging in the consumer marketplace, one can anticipate the appearance of commercial organizations dedicated to individual nutrition profiling. Whether accessed by consumers as part of a medical intervention or a wellness program, knowledge of one's bioindividuality appears to have little downside.

How SNP-based research will impact the price-performance ratio of both dietary supplements and foods (including a new class of enhanced foods called "nutraceuticals") is an open question. If new research methods allow for the matching of individual nutritional profiles and precisely measured bioactive supplement components, the potential for better health at reduced cost may be significantly enhanced. With over half of all adult Americans currently using supplements, the benefits to producers in being able to target products more precisely to individual needs seems obvious, especially when combined with sure knowledge on the part of consumers.

Genomes, quality supplements, and health freedom

But if cost advantages are to be preserved, producers and consumers alike need to keep a vigilant eye on the regulatory environment. The legislative reforms of the mid-'90s, which left supplements largely free of the pre-market regulation governing pharmaceuticals, need to be defended and strengthened. Ensuring that the cost of supplements remains free of much of the overhead associated with patented pharmaceuticals requires constant vigilance by both industry and consumer groups.

For consumers who believe their health interests are best served by cutting-edge science combined with open, competitive markets for all drug and nutrition products, a sharp eye on new advances in genetic science combined with attention to activity regarding supplements in Congress seems a self-prescription well worth observing.


Bonnie E. Gould Rothberg. "Mapping a role for SNPs in drug development." Nature, Volume 19, Number 3, March 2001. www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v19/n3/full/nbt0301_209.html.

Peter Everett is a founder of the Dietary Supplement Quality Initiative, sponsor of SupplementQuality.com.end-of-story




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