Nutragenetics 2007

December 20, 2007


 Competency # 15 Vitamins and Supplements                              Reference: Scientific American, Dec 2007  Nutragenetics 

 It just isn’t there yet!  Can’t you imagine it?  Be a CSI and swab your cheek.  Pop it in an envelope and mail it off to a company that mails you back an answer in a couple of weeks.  Their answer will “tell you what you should eat based on your risk profile.”  Evaluate your DNA and your genes and figure out what mutations you carry so that you can tell what foods are good for you, and what might be really bad. No doubt this is the future of medicine.  Just like Star Trek was the future of space travel.  “Beam me up, Scotty.”  

But the science isn’t there yet.  There will be a time when we can predict your risk profile.  That science has started with some cancer risks.   We can evaluate some chromosome stuff with pregnancies.  The promise is fascinating and will soon be here, just not yet. Here is how the science might work.  Scientific American’s December issue details how one gene on chromosome 1, our longest chromosome, might be a good example.  On the end of chromosome 1 is a gene for an enzyme called methylene hydrofolate reductase (MTHFR).  MTHFR breaks down a chemical called homocysteine.  

In some studies, homecysteine is believed to be tied to higher risk for heart attack and stroke.  Some people get a mutation of MTHFR that is slightly less active than normal.  Their homocysteine levels are higher.   If you have that mutation, can you lower your risk for a heart attack?  Here is the clincher.  The companies involved ostensibly measure that risk and then directed to eat extra B vitamins and lower your homocysteine.  Guess how much those vitamins cost you!  Yes, hundreds of dollars a year. You got it.  

The internet has become populated with companies that promise the mystery of your DNA interpreted into valid behavior change.  These companies make amazing claims.  Too amazing.  In response, last year, the GAO (Government Accountability Office) ran a little sting.  They sent off many DNA samples from one 9 month-old baby and one unrelated adult and made up the story about who the people were.  The answers they got back from four different internet nutragenetics companies were all obviously bogus.  For example, when two samples from the baby were sent in as two different people, the investigators got back contradictory recommendations, except for the recommendation to take lots of expensive vitamins. 

 What I think is a hoot is that when the investigators sent in dog or cat DNA, they did get failed results.  So, there may be some human testing going on. What was more disingenuous was that the nutragenetics companies obviously overreached and pretended to assess bone health, insulin resistance, antioxidant activity, susceptibility to infection and heart health.  We can’t predict that reliably, even with the whole clinical picture.  Sorry, it’s just not possible yet. There is some good science out there about genes.  Hopefully, the sour experience of these bogus companies won’t sour us on the bright future coming. 

WWW:  What will work for me.  If you get an ad to swab your cheek and mail it in for a couple of hundred bucks, run.  Call your doctor and make an appointment.  Get it out of your system.  Ask your own doctor about what vitamins you need.  As for me, I’m having an apple and watching CSI tonight.   The fantasy, so far, is better than reality.  And on CSI, the good guys always win.

The column written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI (262-784-5300)