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The Nutrigenomics Logjam

By Joanna Cosgrove | June 21, 2010

It’s got the promise and the financial backing so why hasn’t the nutrigenomics industry taken off?

The concept of nutrigenomics—the science of how nutrients or bioactive dietary compounds can influence an individual’s gene expression—is, ideally, a perfect confluence of the pharmaceutical industry and nutraceutical industry and uniquely poised to impact most aspects of the food chain as well as consumer nutrition and healthcare via personalized nutrition. While some ingredient and food manufacturing companies have begun to apply nutrigenomics to their own R&D programs, the overall realization of nutrigenomics’ promise as an industry has loped along rather slowly.
According to Dr. Cheryl L. Barton, author of “The Future of Nutrigenomics: New opportunities in personalized nutrition and food-pharma collaboration, a report published by Business Insights in January, market drivers abound—but so do pitfalls.
“A number of drivers—population, aging, urbanization and healthcare economics—will fuel growth in the Nutrition and Health market. The older population is growing at a considerably faster rate than that of the world’s total population and along with this comes the demand for foods which offer health benefits,” she said. “Lifestyle-related diseases such as obesity (and metabolic syndromes) have now reached epidemic proportions. The application of nutrigenomics may improve our understanding of diets, genes and disease risk and identify taste and nutritional preferences.”
Nutrigenomics could also be an important part of reigning in global healthcare expenditures as governments continue to seek alternative ways to address diseases and conditions. “The adoption of nutrigenomics will ultimately lead to further market segmentation as this knowledge will identify ‘at risk’ patients and provide guidance for dietary regimens and lifestyles to have a positive impact on public health and overall quality of life. However, the degree to which diets may be personalized will be driven by the depth of scientific research and technology and the commercial translation of this information to consumers who are already willing to take a more active role in managing their health, earlier in life,” she said.
Identifying Roadblocks
Steve Allen, a retired Nestlé exec, current advisory board member of the Vitamin Angels non-profit group and part of Nutraceuticals World editorial advisory board, recently recalled a meeting during which a young scientist enthusiastically spoke about the burgeoning and bright field of nutrigenomics. “Not long after, companies started up in the business of nutrigenomics. A few of them attracted serious capital; some even went public,” he recollected. “We knew drug companies were using genomics to develop rational drugs and so it seemed a hop, skip and a jump to finding another way of generating value in the nutrition business.”
But what seemed like a sure thing has, in reality, turned into a lengthy waiting game strewn with casualties. Mr. Allen cited a March New York Times article that reported on the struggles of 23andMe, a highly reputable consumer genetic testing company. “According to the Times, they've been cutting prices to attract customers and had to lay off staff,” he said. “If 23andMe cannot make nutritional genomics work, what's wrong? The company's co-founder is Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google's Sergey Brin, so presumably it’s not money that is holding the business back.”
The key thread linking many consumer genomics companies, according to Mr. Allen, is their lack of a viable business model. “Learning you have a higher than average risk of a disease and you need to change to a low-risk diet and lifestyle is a shock many people prefer to avoid. And paying hundreds or even thousands to receive common sense advice about diet and exercise seems like a tough sell,” he said. “I’m pretty sure the entrepreneur that figures this [business model conundrum] out will offer free genomic testing and earn a return through selling highly differentiated products with simple, actionable feedback to keep the customer engaged. Perhaps enlightened retailers will facilitate not just the testing but consumer understanding of the implications of the results.”
But a well-crafted business model is only one component. There’s also the tricky issue of forging alliances since nutrigenomics is comprised of such broad and interdisciplinary technologies. “Historically alliances between food and pharma companies have been rare and have been more common between food and biotech,” explained Dr. Barton. “However, many of the research tools and approaches used by the pharmaceutical industry are similar to those used by the food and drinks industry and these synergies could provide future opportunities for both parties to discover and validate biomarkers.”
While there have been some fruitful collaborations between the pharmaceutical and food/beverage industries, the future of this type of strategic alliance remains to be seen. “The food and drinks industry and nutrigenomic testing companies have much to learn from the pharma and diagnostic counterparties,” asserted Dr. Barton. “In order for the nutrigenomic field to progress it is essential that researchers and companies form global networks to share information and technological capabilities and to facilitate the transfer of information.”
Another component essential for successful nutrigenomic ingredient development and product manufacturing is genetic testing. “Genetic testing has been applied to a variety of areas which are important in long-term health, including antioxidants, bone health, cardiovascular health, cholesterol and lipid metabolism, detoxification, inflammation, and insulin sensitivity,” noted Dr. Barton. “Dozens of nutrigenomic testing companies have been quick to jump on the spoils of the Human Genome Project and to translate the knowledge from this project directly to the consumer in the form of nutrigenetics tests…others have applied nutrigenomics to identify nutrients with health benefits.”
Many of the nutrigenomic tests are based on information generated from public and privately funded research which have identified gene-diet and gene-nutrient interactions and may have important health implications—but have yet be clinically validated. “Without question, nutrigenomic tests make use of information generated from the human genome project but there are currently only around 20 gene variants upon which genetic tests are based, therefore their application and scientific validity remains questionable in the near-term,” commented Dr. Barton.
In addition to the aforementioned caveats, probably the largest overarching issue hampering the nutrigenomics industry is its current lack of regulation, coupled with inherent ethical legal and social issues. “Nutrigenomics has the potential to transform food into medicine and influence our dietary needs and requirements,” said Dr. Barton. “The acceptance of nutrigenomic products will depend not only [on] the products generated by the food and drinks industry, but also [on] increasing public awareness and consumer perception of nutrigenomic research and the application of this technology.”

Realizing Possible Potential
According to the Business Insights report, the global food industry was worth approximately $1.5 trillion in 2009, of which the health and nutrition segment—driven largely by advances in new technologies, new ingredients and the personalization of products targeting lifestyle-related disease—contributed nearly a third of sales.
At the same time, the global genetic testing market is currently estimated to be worth around $730 million and is growing at around 20% per year, and the identification of new nutrigenomic biomarkers will fuel further development in the field.
The complex science of nutrigenomics blends the two disciplines and is poised to emit a broad and beneficial ripple effect. “The industry, governments and regulators will need to work together to clinically validate nutrigenomic data and to apply and regulate the use of nutrigenomics information within a regulatory framework which supports innovative research whilst protecting the health of individuals,” Dr. Barton concluded. “Nutrigenomics has the potential to empower the consumer to personalize, predict, prevent and take a participatory role in their health and well-being, both now and in the future.”
For more information about the Business Insights study, please click this link.
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