Personalized nutrition: a Q&A with Ahmed El-Sohemy

The newest co-editor-in-chief of BMC’s Genes & NutritionAhmed El-Sohemy is a Full Professor and Associate Chair at the University of Toronto. Professor El-Sohemy will be speaking at the Personalized Nutrition Innovation Summit on June 28th-29th, and in this new Q&A, Professor El-Sohemy discusses the summit, his company Nutrigenomix, and the journal.

Can you give us a brief summary of Nutrigenomix and the heart of your work these days?
Nutrigenomix is a biotechnology company dedicated to empowering healthcare professionals and their clients with comprehensive genomic information for personalized nutrition, with the ultimate goal of improving health and performance through precision nutrition recommendations. I founded the company a decade ago as a University of Toronto start-up, but we now have our own offices in 4 countries and provide testing to over 10,000 healthcare practitioners in 40 countries. We use evidence-based, actionable genetic markers to help individuals maximize their genetic potential and overall health through personalized nutrition. Our Health, Sport, Fertility and Plant-based panels consist of 70 genetic markers with actionable information for weight management, nutrient recommendations, heart health, food intolerances, eating habits and physical activity as well as additional genetic insights for health and wellness focusing on areas such as inflammation and antioxidant capacity, sleep and alcohol sensitivity. The research we are conducting at the University of Toronto aims to discover how specific genetic variants modify our response to various nutrients and food bioactives on diverse outcomes such as cardiometabolic disease, premenstrual symptoms, athletic performance, and infertility.

How has the personalized nutrition industry changed in the past few years?
I think the science of personalized nutrition has advanced tremendously in the past few years, which has spurred the industry to transform from niche offerings to more widely accessible products and services. We now see various food products and supplements that can be personalized according to taste and preferences as well as health attributes such as nutrient status, gut microbiome, and DNA test results. It remains a bit of a ‘wild west’ with claims that tend to exaggerate the science, but consumers and healthcare practitioners are becoming more cautious and educating themselves about the science behind some of these products and services. Overall, I think we’re beginning to see a trend towards more products and services that are being developed based on sound scientific evidence, which is vital for the field to thrive.

The future of DNA-based personalized nutrition is promising, and new knowledge stemming from the increasing flow of scientific evidence is allowing companies to develop more precise and comprehensive recommendations.

What do you expect it to look like in five years’ time?
We’ve been focussing on advancing the field of DNA-based personalized nutrition because I consider this the most developed branch of personalized nutrition. Although there is a growing trend to integrate various ‘omics’ technologies, I think it’s important to distinguish between discovery-based fundamental nutrition research, and practical or applied research. Many of the studies that utilize epigenetic approaches, for example, do not lend themselves to clinical applications. We know this because epigenetic changes are tissue specific and it’s not practical, or desirable, to take a tissue biopsy to provide personalized recommendations. Nevertheless, I think there is value in using non-invasive biomarkers to track progress and monitor changes in health or performance status once a person begins to follow their personalized nutrition recommendations. The future of DNA-based personalized nutrition is promising, and new knowledge stemming from the increasing flow of scientific evidence is allowing companies to develop more precise and comprehensive recommendations. Finally, the bridging of existing technologies such as wearable devices and cell phones with personalized nutrition innovations will enable healthcare providers and consumers alike to measure compliance and effectiveness of recommendations in real time and perhaps connect with devices that can dispense personalized products such as energy bars and beverages.


Can you give us a preview of what you will be discussing in your talk at the Personalized Nutrition Innovation Summit in June?
I will be presenting during the last session with Dr. Sharon Donovan. We will each provide a brief 5-7 minute presentation where we highlight what we consider to be the benefits, limitations, and opportunities in the field of personalized nutrition. For my talk, I will be focussing on DNA-based approaches to personalized nutrition and the role that genetics plays within the broader field of precision nutrition.


In your opinion, what are some of the greatest developments which have come from these meetings?
I’ve been amazed to see the growing number of start-up companies that have developed exciting new products and services. Many of these seem to be driven by creative young minds that bring ideas from different sectors like food science, robotics, AI and data science, clinical chemistry, and psychology. What I’ve enjoyed most from these meetings in the past is the opportunity to network with not only fellow scientists from different disciplines, but with other companies, big and small, that come to this conference because they recognize that personalized nutrition is not some passing fad. The genie is out of the bottle. There is no way that we will return to one-size-fits-all dietary advice. The challenge will be to determine how personalized nutrition will be delivered most effectively and how different stakeholders can work together to make it function efficiently and to the benefit of consumers and healthcare systems.


How can a meeting of CEO’s, start-up founders, and investors help to drive the industry forward?
The meeting can help participants to identify common challenges and opportunities as well as create a roadmap that can facilitate moving the industry forward. It’s also important for stakeholders to consider how information is being communicated to the end user, how it’s being stored and protected and if an industry-wide regulatory framework needs to be developed.


Are there any speakers you are particularly looking forward to hearing?
I’m most looking forward to the opening session with Mariette Abrahams, Nard Clabbers, and Tom Aarts. I consider them all to be astute visionaries in the field and I look forward to hearing their current perspectives. I’m also excited to listen to the NutrInnovate session and to see what the latest start-ups have developed.


What are some areas that will be discussed at the Summit, which you think would be most of interest to readers of Genes and Nutrition?
When looking over the program I can honestly say that every session would be of great interest to readers of Genes and Nutrition. As one of the co-Editors-in-Chief of the journal, I’m aware of the diverse research papers we receive and consider for publication, and in most instances those research articles not only help to advance our fundamental understanding of the role of nutrition and genetics in health and performance, but many also have the potential to be translated into some product or service. As such, readers who focus primarily on their scientific research can benefit from the all the sessions that highlight the advances in commercialization. I think it will encourage more basic researchers to see the potential applications of their own work.


Dr. Ahmed El-Sohemy is a Full Professor and Associate Chair at the University of Toronto and held a Canada Research Chair in Nutrigenomics. He is also the founder of Nutrigenomix Inc. and serves as the company’s Chief Science Officer. Dr. El-Sohemy has published over 180 peer-reviewed articles, given over 200 invited talks around the world, and received several awards for excellence in research by the Canadian Nutrition Society and the American College of Nutrition.

Joseph Hasan

Journal Development Editor at BioMed Central
Joseph S. Hasan has been with BMC since 2015. He is currently a Senior Journal Development Editor for titles in the Genetics portfolio.
Joseph Hasan

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