The Applications of Omics Technologies and the Challenges of Ethics in Nutritional Sciences

The Applications of Omics Technologies and the Challenges of Ethics in Nutritional Sciences

Minakshi Bhardwaj (Cardiff University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61692-883-4.ch006
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Abstract

During the past two decades, there have been numerous developments in the genetic and genomic technologies enabling us to understand complex biological systems in an integrative manner through holistic approaches in research. Since the sequencing of the human genome, efforts are made to identify the number of the genes and their functions. The tools for determining the functionality of the genes are just beginning to appear. Initially the methodologies to identify functionality of the genes were largely based on comparative studies between model organisms. The very high number of genes with unknown functions demanded the need to develop new methods and technologies that may be helpful in assigning functions to the identified genes. Advancements in computing techniques and software opened the door for new technologies to be able to take an applied approach by studying biomolecules needed for proper functioning of the cell and take a holistic approach in biomedical research. Besides genomics, several other technologies are developed in the last decade that take an ‘omics’ approach, i.e., an integrated approach in the study of cell function. It is hoped that the applied integrative omics approaches may be helpful in establishing cause and effect relationships between genotype and phenotype. These ‘omics’ approaches include the integration of genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, metabolomics and other omic technologies to do the non-targeted studies of biomolecules involved in the proper functioning of the cells and their responses to environmental changes. The applications of these technologies have been also utilized in the field of nutrition for studies on how nutrients and other metabolites effect the proper functioning of the cell. With these emerging techniques to understand the molecular functioning of the body, it is envisaged that they might be helpful to give personalized medical care and dietary advice to people based on their individual genotypes in the future. Whilst nutritional genomics is a rapidly growing field in the nutritional sciences focusing on the diet-gene relationships, there is an increasing understanding that other technologies will also be crucial in understanding the whole biological processes involved in metabolism of food. In this chapter I wish to outline the use of contemporary technologies that are involved in establishing the intricate linkages between diet and the genes, and the ethical challenges they raise in their applications.
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Functional Foods

Functional foods were developed at a particular sensitive time in the eighties when genetic modification in foods was beginning to bring distrust and discontent among ordinary public. The development of functional foods was based on the premise of providing additional health value to the foods through alteration of physical structure and chemical composition of food products in order to achieve particular effects in the body functions. Functional foods encapsulated public health agenda as the supporters suggested that they not only will satisfy individual consumer needs for healthy food but also will contribute to the reduction in the food related illnesses (TAB1999). There is no legal definition of functional foods, except for their claims about enhancing nutritional value of food, such that when consumed will have positive effects on the body. The claims made by functional foods are seen both in terms of health and nutrient content. The health claims include enhanced function claims (improving digestive system, concentration) and disease risk claims (will reduce the risk of getting cancer or heart disease). The nutrient claims mention nutrient contents (such as high in fibre), comparative claims (less fat) and nutrient function claims (lycopene in tomatoes reduce the risk of prostate cancer).

Functional foods form a borderline between food and medicine; hence they need a different way of thinking about their intake and consumption. However, one can argue that their market has increased over the years in parallel with the increase in the food and lifestyle related conditions, e.g., obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes. Health foods shops are found in most countries and supermarkets have developed special sections for “healthy foods.” They range from processed foods for allergies such as gluten free food as well as over target groups such as age and gender ones. Nevertheless, it is estimated that functional foods are bought by healthy adults more than the people who actually need them. Although the market for functional foods has significantly grown over the years with the increasing health conscious consumers, they are equally challenged in ethical, legal and social domains.

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