Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Towards the Genomization of Food? Potentials and Risks of Nutrigenomics as a Way of Personalized Care and Prevention

Academic journal article Italian Sociological Review

Towards the Genomization of Food? Potentials and Risks of Nutrigenomics as a Way of Personalized Care and Prevention

Article excerpt


Genetics is a branch of biology that studies the processes by which the traits of living organisms are transmitted through heredity. The discipline's origins date back to the distant past: its first bases were laid in the mid-1800s by G. Mendel, who developed the concept of 'decisive hereditary trait'. However, it was in the next century that genetics consolidated itself by shifting from a 'classical' to a 'molecular' framework. Put forward in 1910, in fact, was the hypothesis that the chromosome contained the genes, and in 1953 the structure of DNA was discovered. With the development of techniques enabling identification of the DNA sequence, genetics was replaced by genomics, a discipline that studies the overall system in which the individual genes are located and isolates their various functions. After 2003 - the year in which the mapping of the human genome was substantially completed - there ensued the rapid development of its applicative potential.

Pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics consolidated themselves within this scenario as subdisciplines engaged in identifying the genes that supervise the metabolism and whereby every substance, whether a synthetic drug or a nutrient, is first decomposed and then re-synthesised into the new molecules on which the existence of the organism depends. Understanding the function of such genes means being able to devise a pharmaceutical treatment or a nutritional regimen of much greater efficacy.

After examining the epistemological and social changes that these scientific advances impose on diet (Section 1), the paper explores the process by which the consumption of food is conceptualized within an increasingly biological semantic mainly concerned with the interactions between nutrients and the individual's genomic structure. This is a process with enormous potential as regards therapy, disease prevention, or the enhancement of health (Section 2), but it is also accompanied by political-social risks which must be kept under control (Section 3) in order to create a system of health care and promotion that is fair and accessible to all sections of the population.

1. The genomization of food

As well known, individuals respond in different ways to drugs, just as they do to nutrients. In the case of drugs, physicians must optimize a dosage regimen for an individual patient by a trial-and-error method, even if mostly within the range of the patient information leaflet. This approach may cause adverse drug reactions in some patients, and this confronts medicine with huge problems: suffice it to consider the 2 million cases of adverse reactions recorded every year in the United States, over 100,000 of them leading to death (Lazarou et al. 1998; Daniel et al. 2006). Also in the field of nutrition, foods known to cause specific adverse reactions in some genotypes are also well documented (Ghosh et al. 2007): e.g. gluten in Celiac disease (Evans 2001) or lactose intolerance. Hence, the aim of both pharmacogenomics and nutrigenomics is to individualize or personalize medicines and food and nutrition, and ultimately health, by tailoring the drug or the food to the individual genotype (Ghosh et al. 2007).

The factors that govern this variability indubitably reside in the ways in which a disease alters the organism's physiological processes (pathogenesis), the interaction between the pharmaceutical and nutritive principles, age, the individual's overall state of health, and the correlated renal and hepatic functions. In light of studies on the human genome, however, it becomes increasingly evident that it is the hereditary characteristics of the metabolism that largely determine the efficacy of the aforesaid substances, as well as their toxicity (Blum 2006).

The implications of what Blum calls - probably with excessive confidence - a "new era" are of importance for pharmacology and the nutritional sciences, on the one hand, and for the social-cultural meaning of food and diet on the other. …

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