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Nutrigenomics – Personalized Pseudoscience

by Steven Novella, Dec 31 2012

I wrote last week about the problem of stem-cell quackery throughout the world, mostly in poorly regulated countries but with the purpose of attracting international customers. Stem cells are real, and the science of developing medical applications of stem cells is both real and promising, but these stem cell clinics are making claims that are years or decades ahead of the science. They are capitalizing on stem cell hype as a marketing ploy to those who are more desperate than scientifically savvy.

I was asked to comment on yet another example of the same phenomenon – nutrigenomics. That’s a very impressive-sounding name, just like a real science, but as always the devil is in the details. The claim is that by analyzing one’s genes a personalized regimen of specific nutrients can be developed to help their gene’s function at optimal efficiency. One website that promises, “Genetics Based Integrative Medicine” contain this statement:

Nutrigenomics seeks to unravel these medical mysteries by providing personalized genetics-based treatment. Even so, it will take decades to confirm what we already understand; that replacing specific nutrients and/or chemicals in existing pathways allows more efficient gene expression, particularly with genetic vulnerabilities and mutations.

The money-quote is the phrase, ” it will take decades to confirm what we already understand.” This is the essence of pseudoscience – using science to confirm what one already “knows.” This has it backwards, of course. Science is not use to “confirm” but to determine if a hypothesis is true or not.

As with the stem-cell quackery, this idea (of studying one’s genes in order to personalize therapy) is not itself pseudoscience. It is, in fact, an area of legitimate research. We already use genetic analysis to diagnose certain diseases, and to target chemotherapy. We are beginning to identify specific genes that affect how different individuals metabolize and respond to specific drugs. While genes are not necessarily destiny, our genes do exert a powerful influence over our health. They are already an important part of science-based medicine.

Further, as genetic analysis become more rapid and cost effective, there is the increasing potential that it can be used as part of a routine screening health evaluation in order to identify susceptibilities, target preventive treatments, adjust behaviors to target risks, and guide therapy. However, similar to stem cell treatments, our current knowledge base with respect to genetic predispositions is still in its infancy. What is well established is already incorporated into mainstream medical practice. The rest is a matter for research, not current practice.

This creates an opportunity for exploitation, however – using current cutting edge research to make clinical claims that are years or decades premature by pretending to have knowledge that simply does not exist. This type of medical pseudoscience is also a manifestation of one common tactic among dubious practitioners – basing clinical claims on pre-clinical scientific research. This is especially insidious and difficult for the non-expert to properly evaluate (which makes for effective pseudoscientific marketing).

A November 2012 review of the field of nutrigenomics states:

It has, however, proven very challenging to define an individual’s responsiveness to complex diets based on common genetic variations. In addition, there is a limited understanding of what constitutes an optimal response because we lack key health biomarkers and signatures.

In other words – the relationship between nutrition and personal health is complex and we do not yet have the scientific knowledge to apply to practice.  The article concludes that, while promising, the field is not yet ready for the marketplace.

There is a great deal of basic science research going on (test tube and petri dish type research), which asks questions about how the body works and how it is affected by all conceivable factors. There is also translational or clinical research which seeks to apply this knowledge to specific medical interventions. Biology is horrifically complex, however, and so it is extremely difficult to extrapolate from basic science knowledge to net clinical effects. Most guesses that derive from basic science research turn out to be wrong. Sometimes our guesses are even the opposite of what we predicted – interventions cause harm rather than improvement.  The only way to know is to conduct careful rigorous clinical research to measure the actual effects (good and bad) of a specific intervention in a specific population.

Because of the vast reservoir of published basic-science research, however, it is possible to find studies that seem to support almost any conceivable intervention you wish. To the public this can make any intervention seem as if it is science-based and legitimate, even when the treatment is nothing but deception.

The nutrigenomics website, for example, claims to treat the following conditions:

Welcome to Genetics Based Integrative Medicine (GBIM), a telemedicine practice dedicated to the education, treatment, and recovery of those with autism spectrum disorders, ADD/ADHD, and PANDAS as well as highly complex & disabling disorders affecting adults such as CFS/ME/FM, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, Parkinson’s and mitochondrial dysfunction.

There is no compelling evidence for any nutritional treatment for the above diseases, let alone for personalized nutritional treatment based on specific genetic types. How the practitioners of GBIM came by the knowledge they are claiming to have is a mystery. As with the stem cell treatments I discussed previously, such clinical claims, if legitimate, would have a paper trail of hundreds of published studies in the literature. Further, if such studies existed such practice would be standard of care, not isolated to one or a few special clinics.

I would add “nutrigenomics” to the list of red flags for dangerous quackery.  It is a shame because, like stem cells, it is a legitimate field of research, and the current quackery is likely to taint the reputation of what in the future might be a promising approach.

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5 Responses to “Nutrigenomics – Personalized Pseudoscience”

  1. Chris Howard says:

    Having read nearly everything you’ve written over the years the thought occurs to me that a television show, perhaps co-hosted with Dr. Hall, about dubious “medical” and general health issues would be a huge hit.

    I say hit because it would not only educate, and warn viewers to the possible harmful effects of these dubious therapies, diets, etc., but also create enough controversy to maintain high ratings.

    • Carl says:

      Chris, did you know this blog was originally created to promote The Skeptologists, a proposed reality show starring a bunch of well-known skeptics (which never got picked up)?

    • RoboSapien says:

      Quackbusters™ starring Steven Novella

      The Skeptologists and pretty much every other skepticism-based TV venture is centered around critical thinking in general and includes topics that most people just don’t care about, like psychics. A show that focused on medical quackery and pseudoscience would probably fare better, especially if you make it all dramatic and sensationalist.

  2. d brown says:

    Over all I think people want to believe. But years ago I read of a animal researcher who looked at humans the way livestock was. He claimed that just like animal feed had additives, humans needed more than they ate. Is he right? Given the lifespan of humans I will never know.

  3. Wscott says:

    This sounds like an updated version of the blood type diets that were faddish a decade or so back. I had a friend who for years would only eat “white food” because his blood type said so. True story: while a guest at a friend’s house, he was served something non-white and loudly declared “this food is poison to me!” I don’t believe he was asked back. While it would be easy to dismiss him as some empty-headed new ager, he is in fact an intelligent, highly-respected and well-paid engineer. But he’s also the poster boy for Dr. Shermer’s aphorism that (many) smart people are good at rationally defending positions they arrived at for irrational reasons. But I digress.

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