Resource: Genomics and Public Health

North Carolina Institute for Public Health has created a web resource, The Genomics Revolutions and Public Health.

Genetic Testing

Keku TO, Rakhra-Burris T, Millikan R. Gene Testing: What the Health Professional Needs to Know. J Nutr. 133(11):3754S-3757S, Nov 2003.

From the abstract:

As a result of the advances in genetic research, the public demand for gene testing is on the rise. Patients are now seeking more information about inheritable diseases and predisposition to genetically related disease from doctors and other health professionals. Genetic tests are often conducted to confirm the diagnosis of a genetic disease as well as to assess genetic risk, predict response to drugs, and assist in reproductive decision making. Genetic tests are available for over 950 inherited diseases or conditions in the GeneTests data base for clinical or research purposes.


FRED BROCK, Assisted Living to Viagra: A Dictionary Nod to Aging. November 9, 2003.

"The 11th edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, published in July, has about 10,000 new entries or definitions. For the first time, the number of new entries related to health and medicine, almost 25 percent of the total, rival those related to technology. And 30 percent to 40 percent of the health and medicine entries are age-related."

Public Relations and Nutrigenomics: Lessons from Gerontology, Part I

The 2nd International Nutrigenomics Conference was held last week in Amsterdam.  Press coverage is scant.  There is one article in Nature on the conference, but it is available only to subscribers.

ERIKA CHECK, Consumers warned that time is not yet ripe for nutrition profiling. Nature 426(6963): 107.

Although promises exist for tailoring nutritional intake according to biological dispositions, as the title suggests this article emphasizes that nutrition profiling remains a concept under study and is not ready for mainstream consumption.

Given the constant struggle to legitimize much of scientific research, there is fear in the hearts of scientists, like restauranteurs, that a bad review tends to go farther faster than a good one, especially in an atmosphere where opportunities to reach the public are scarce.  In this case, it is not the field of nutritional genomics receiving a bad review, but individuals at the boundary of the field rushing to market products of dubious merit while claiming they are based on the most recent scientific evidence.  This article raises the question of whether nutritional genomics needs a strategy for separating itself from individuals or groups operating falsely under the same banner.

There are lessons to be learned from other frontiers in the health sciences.  This problem has been particularly salient in gerontology, where scientific progress is frequently co-opted by disingenuous companies who prey upon ill and uninformed consumers.  Last year a group of 51 scientists published a position statement as an attempt to separate legitimate aging research from the massive "anti-aging" industry peddling dubious and sometimes dangerous products.  This strategy, referred to as the "war on anti-aging medicine" sparked an internal debate among gerontologists about the challenges of maintaining disciplinary integrity.  These issues were recently debated by S. Jay Olshansky and Robert Binstock, both major contributors to gerontology.  (see the video or read the transcript here).

EHRs and Family Doctors

Brian Reid, AAFP Nabs EHR Discounts, Ditches Open-Source Initiative. Health-IT World, Nov. 13 2003.

The New, New Pharmacogenomics

Malorye Branca, The New, New Pharmacogenomics. Bio-IT World.  Part 1 of 2.

Profile: International HapMap Project

Two recent articles provide profiles of the International HapMap Project (homepage):

Carina Dennis. Special section on human genetics: The rough guide to the genome. Nature 425: 758 - 759.

David Rotman. Genes, Medicine, and the New Race Debate. MIT Technology Review, June 2003.
(only first two paragraphs w/o subscription, but also look here)

Revolution in Progress

A new online exhibit at the NIH website entitled: "A Revolution in Progress: Human Genetics and Medical Research."


Digital Biology

Today is the last day of the conference Digital Biology: The Emerging Paradigm.  At the webpage, two purposes for the conference are listed:

To demonstrate how computational approaches to biomedical research have yielded breakthroughs that advance the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease

To identify national research needs and opportunities in the computational and quantitative sciences critical to the future of biomedical discovery

A recent article on the meeting appeared in Nature Science Update.  It provides a glimpse of the kind of issues to be addressed in the coming years:

At the moment, it is a struggle to link a patient’s genetic profile with their brain scans and the latest clinical studies. It’s like a primitive PC running incompatible word-processing, e-mail and spreadsheet programs, says Erik Jakobsson of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, who helped to convene the meeting. "We’re way behind in making it all work together," he says.

Interoperability is a big issue.  The biotech industry launched the Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium (I3C) in 2001 with the mission to "eliminate barriers to application interoperability, data integration, and knowledge flow."  Although, the extent to which I3C pursues formal standards has emerged as a point of contention for at least one member, Sun Microsystems, who recently left the consortium.

UPDATE: More coverage of the symposium here.

Pie-oneering Nutritional Genomics

There is nothing coincidental in that many prolific scholars position themselves between disciplinary boundaries.    Methods and principles taken from one knowledge domain and applied in another offers opportunities for insights that would be otherwise inaccessible.  The historical record is rich with examples.  The origin of molecular biology being one, when physicists jumped (over chemistry) into the biological sciences mid-twentieth century.  The humanities and social sciences are populated by inter-disciplinary vanguards as well, such as Richard Posner’s combination of economics and legal theory.  The time is ripe for pioneers of nutritional genomics. 

We are what we eat, The Economist, Sept. 4, 2003.

"…within five years or so, researchers should learn how to modify people’s diets to fit their genes and thereby prevent or delay the onset of a possible illness. At least, that is the goal of nutritional genomics—a new field that studies how genes and diet interact."

Evidence is accumulating that the application of advances in genomics to nutrition will enable individuals to tailor habits in the kitchen for improved well-being.  For example, Dr. Jose M. Ordovas and colleagues published evidence last October indicating that variation at one genetic site (a lipase gene) is related to differences in dietary fat response across a population.  In the future, evidence such as this may be used as a tool to help people at risk for illness, such as heart disease or diabetes, formulate a far more personalized diet than, say, the generic recommendations of the food pyramid.      

Two nutrigenomics research groups to watch:
NUGO: The European NutriGenomics Organization
Center for Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at UC Davis

For another perspective see recent paper:
"Nutrition and Genes: Science, Society and the Supermarket.  The opportunities and ethical challenges of the new science of nutritional genomics." (full paper or press release)


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