Most scientists are familiar with the challenges of figuring out the genetic cause of a disease that stems from multiple genes instead of the simpler, monogenic variety. Add to that complexity another layer of human intervention, and you’ve got an idea of the research dilemma facing the folks at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, an agency-funded lab located on the Tufts University campus.
Jose Ordovas, director of the nutrition and genomics lab at the center, says his group’s research into cardiovascular disease, obesity, and aging share a focus on how nutrition plays a role in altering a patient’s risk of suffering such a condition. One step, of course, involves tracking down the right genes and potential mutations in them; but, Ordovas adds, in a case like obesity, genes don’t tell the whole story: “Somebody has to pull the trigger,” he says. “In this case, it’s bad nutrition.”
Larry Parnell, a computational biologist at the lab, says the team takes “an integrated genomics approach to nutrition research.” That includes transcription profiling, comparative genomics, and gene expression — all aimed at identifying genes involved in nutrition. In particular, Parnell says, the goal is to see what impact nutrition has on obesity and aging. Obesity, for example, is incredibly complex. “One person who’s obese may develop cardiovascular disease, another may develop diabetes, still another may develop cancer. [That] makes it hard to understand how the activities of one gene influence the activities of another gene,” Parnell explains.
Ordovas, who became director of the lab some three years ago, has been working on establishing the basis for nutritional genomics for more than a decade. Ultimately, the idea is to establish some kind of screening mechanism that could single out the high-risk individuals and work toward prevention through diet or therapeutics, he explains. To accomplish that, Ordovas says finding one or two genes won’t cut it — scientists will need “a panel of genes that will provide much more precision.”
One advantage Ordovas and his team are relying on is their access to data from the Framingham Heart Study, a more than 50-year-long health study of several thousand people from Framingham, Mass., directed at a better understanding of heart disease. The results, Ordovas hopes, could prove instrumental in picking out key genes related to both risk of disease and the impact of nutrition.
So far, Ordovas says, “what we have been doing … is to prove the concept.” Over the years, he says, the field has garnered more and more attention from the larger biotech community, and he’s hoping that in time the extra interest will pay off with major health advances.
— Meredith Salisbury