Genetic Testing
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | January 27, 2006

Revolutions begin in many ways. Sometimes we can point to a single event and say, “That was when it began.” A little melodramatic? Perhaps--but I think it’s justified when we talk about genetic testing.

In a recent review paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, two scientists broached the topic of whether public health policy should recommend essential nutrients from foods or from dietary supplements (1). They came to the conclusion that when instituting public health policy, nutrients should be derived from foods. That seems like a frustrating statement for those of us who use dietary supplements on a regular basis, but understand that this was a discussion of establishing policy concerning the health of the general public, not optimizing health for an individual. The arguments presented are well thought-out and valid.

However, in the last part of the paper, they presented a section on Targeted Supplementation. Among several examples is the American Heart Association’s recommendation that those people at risk for heart disease use a fish-oil supplement every day (2). That last paragraph is the reason for this Newsletter. They said that while we are in the infancy of understanding the relationship between nutrition and the genetic code, a field called nutrigenomics,

the future will see targeted supplementation based on the types of genes a person has.

This is a significant statement. You’ll have nutrients recommended not based on someone’s opinion, not on a paper and pencil or computerized test, but on the information found in your genetic code.

Why is genetic testing going to be important?
As a result of the Genome Project, scientists have mapped out the genetic code of a human being--a remarkable project in itself. The problem is that it will take decades to identify exactly what each part of this 3-billion-long code controls (3). The goal is to identify the parts of the genetic code that are responsible for diseases, and the result will be targeted pharmaceuticals that may help prevent the disease. A side benefit is that it will also allow scientists to examine whether lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and dietary supplements can mitigate those genes to reduce the risk of disease. You’ve heard the expression that you are what you eat? It may be truer than we ever imagined.

What is genetic testing?
Most people have watched a television show such as CSI and have seen the investigators swab the inside of people’s mouths to collect their DNA. In the genetic testing we’re talking about, the goal isn’t to find out your genetic code to compare to someone else’s--it’s to find out if you have specific parts of your genetic code that may put you at risk for developing a disease.

These specific parts of your genetic code are called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, thankfully called SNPs for short and pronounced “snips.” These SNPs will come in different forms--some may be positive, which may put you at higher risk for developing a particular disease, and some that are negative and may protect you from developing that disease.

Here’s the thing: even if you’ve inherited a SNP associated with a disease, you may or may not get the disease. It’s not a done deal. Why? Because there may be more SNPs involved in that disease. Also your lifestyle has a big role to play in whether those genes are ever expressed (turned on). The reason it’s important to know what SNPs you have is that when you know, you can adjust your lifestyle to reduce the risk of developing the disease, and that may include targeted supplementation. Pretty remarkable, isn’t it?

I’ll be writing more about this in the future as more is discovered. This is an exciting time in the health field. Based on genetic testing, we may be able to know exactly what type of diet you should eat, what type of exercise you’d respond to best, what type of nutrients you should eat, and others you should avoid. So stay tuned--the revolution in health has just begun. As Pat Zifferblatt, the owner of Better Life loves to say, “The best is yet to come!”

  1. Lichtenstein, AH and Russell, RM Essential Nutrients: Food or Supplements? Where Should the Emphasis Be? JAMA. 2005;294:351-358.

  2. Kris-Etherton PM, et al. American Heart Association Nutrition Committee. Fish consumption, fish oil, omega-3 fatty acids, and cardiovascular disease. Circulation. 2002;106: 2747-2757.

  3. Oak Ridge National Laboratory., then Featured Sites, then Human Genome Project Section.
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