TI Food and Nutrition has a leading role in the Dutch nutrigenomics research programme, which recently (December 2011) received an excellent end-of-programme evaluation from the Commissie van Wijzen Kennis en Innovatie (CvW), an advisory board to the Dutch government. The programme delivered an enormous amount of scientific data and has helped the Netherlands to become an international leader in this young science.
The Nutrigenomics programme was one of 29 Bsik projects: fundamental research programmes that contribute to the Dutch knowledge economy and receive special funding from the Dutch government that reflects their importance to the knowledge infrastructure and innovation capacity. The programmes are conducted by consortia of top research institutes and industry and result in the development of new processes, products and societal concepts.
The Nutrigenomics Consortium, led by TI Food and Nutrition and the Centre for Medical Systems Biology, received €10 million from the government (2004-2009) to investigate how food components - fats in particular - affect human physiology. The prevention of Metabolic Syndrome received special attention. The research was followed up by the Netherlands Nutrigenomics Centre with an additional €1 Million (2010/11). From 2012-2015, these activities will be continued by the TI Food and Nutrition Nutrigenomics Platform.
Completely new science
“In the last few years we have introduced a completely new science that allows detailed measurement of the molecular effects of nutrients”, says Prof. Dr Michael Müller, Scientific Director of the Netherlands Nutrigenomics Centre at Wageningen University. “Until now, nutritionists offered nutrition and lifestyle advice mainly at the population-health level. Nutrigenomics allows for more precise guidelines that take into account an individual’s genetic make-up.”
When it comes to genetic make-up, Müller not only speaks about genetic variability but also about gene expression. “Genes can be switched ‘on’ and ‘off’, depending on, for example, diet and lifestyle”, he says. “The secret of maintaining good health is variety in diet and lifestyle. This results in high genome plasticity: the capacity to switch genes on or off.”
This is basically the mechanism behind the idea that you are what you eat. “We cannot change our genes, but we can influence their expression and this could lead to increased metabolic flexibility and health”, says Müller.
According to the CvW, the Netherlands has become an international leader in nutrigenomics. Müller acknowledges this: “We have published quite a number of papers in top, international peer-reviewed journals, including Nature, Cell Metabolism, Diabetes, Gut and the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Moreover, we have developed a wide range of tools that have enabled us to take the lead in international nutrigenomics consortia, such as the EU KP7 programmes Nutritech and IDEAL.”
In the beginning, the nutrigenomics consortium was focussed on the development of a technology platform, finding the best research approach and adapting experimental design to genomics applications. A unique database has been built containing information, currently based on 6000 microarrays, for various nutrigenomics experiments.
Müller: “We have demonstrated that nutrigenomics can offer high added value to human intervention studies. Moreover, we have achieved a deep understanding of the dynamic concept of health and how organs interact with each other. For example, a fatty liver can develop when the fat tissue in the body no longer works properly.”
The nutrigenomics consortium used its 'toolbox' in the substantiation of the effects of probiotics – a study by Kleerebezem et al, published in PNAS (2009), and in the investigation of the effects of a diet high in saturated fats on gene expressions in fat tissue, published in the American Journal of Nutrition (2010). The research programme has also resulted in five patent applications.
To a higher level
The scientific director of the Netherlands Nutrigenomics Centre expects more applications in the years to come. “Within the context of TI Food and Nutrition, for example, we now study muscle functionality in relation to ageing. We are looking at how exercise affects gene expression and what the differences are between the muscles of young people and the elderly. First results are promising.”
Müller is convinced that nutrigenomics will bring nutrition sciences to a higher level. “At last we have a tool that enables us to take a proper quantitative look at complex health issues such as obesity and ageing.”