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Nutrigenomics tailors food to user’s DNA

Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2005

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Rachael Golden⁄The Gazette
Fredric D. Abramson, CEO of AlphaGenics in Rockville, sees a big future in nutrigenomics — foods and drinks formulated based on each customer’s genetic profile.

Fredric D. Abramson may not yet have his futuristic product manufactured — it’s a nutritional drink custom-designed to complement an individual’s genetic makeup — but he does have a distribution plan.

And the CEO of Rockville startup AlphaGenics even has a roll-out date for JeneJuice: April 8, 2006, at the annual conference of the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Chicago.

‘‘JeneJuice is a sports drink adjusted for your gene profile and will be dispensed in a vending machine,” said Abramson from his company’s incubator laboratory at the Maryland Technology Development Center.

Here’s how it is designed to work: AlphaGenics will work up, for free, a genetic profile from a customer’s saliva sample. Each customer receives a personalized smart card that contains a computer chip with the profile.

‘‘Then, someone at a health club, for example, can insert his or her card into the vending machine, which will mix a custom sports beverage adjusted to fit the genetic makeup — like Gatorade for your genes,” Abramson said.

If JeneJuice catches on in vending machines at health clubs and college campuses, AlphaGenics will ship cases to genetically profiled customers, he said.

JeneJuice has its genesis in the emerging science of nutrigenomics, which will lead to foods and beverages concocted to fill specific health needs on an individual basis and revolutionize health and disease management, say Abramson and like-minded futurist scientists. They say nutrigenomics might one day rival the dietary supplement industry, a $20 billion industry, according to Nutrition Business Journal.

But just when nutrigenomics’ day will arrive is up for debate among scientists.

Spokesmen at the National Institutes of Health say there is no scientific basis for nutrigenomics. Larry Thompson, communications director for the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, said the institute’s research grants database has yet to contain any science to show that a particular genetic profile can be used to tailor products such as JeneJuice for individuals.

‘‘There won’t be any good science anytime soon for tailoring nutrition to fit a person’s DNA,” Thompson said. ‘‘This is truly a fringe area of science that has potential for fraud. It may work, but no one knows if it will work.”

Spokeswoman Rebecca Kolberg said the institute is skeptical of the dozens of companies selling scientific tests online to improve health based on a person’s DNA. ‘‘I would ask what specific gene they are talking about — a fat metabolism gene? There is just no scientific evidence yet. Maybe one day, yes.”

One of Abramson’s counterparts in the burgeoning field fired back.

‘‘I am amazed that NIH people said it is fringe,” said Jim Kaput, president and chief scientific officer of NutraGenomics Inc. in Chicago, which receives funding from the Center of Excellence for Nutritional Genomics at the University of California, Davis, a project on a five-year, $6.5 million grant from the NIH National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

‘‘There is no doubt that this science is on its way,” Kaput said. ‘‘True, it is clearly too early to do a genetic test and tell someone what to eat, though.”

NIH’s National Cancer Institute also funds diet-related genomics research, at the University of Alabama, Harvard University, Georgetown University and the Albert Einstein Cancer Center in New York City.

It’s part of a growing pool of funding and momentum for nutrigenomics, whose validity is gaining acceptance, said Dave Evans, CEO of WellGen at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., which also receives money from the National Cancer Institute.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is also getting into nutrigenomics, awarding a grant through NIH for pre-clinical tests on the effects of theaflavin — a compound found in black tea — on arthritic mice. The experiments are now in pilot human trials at a Miami clinic, which Evans did not name.

‘‘This industry will be big, very big,” Evans said. ‘‘I think if we look at the current industry of functional food and dietary supplements, it is a $40 billion industry, which shows that people will be interested in nutrigenomics and could mean an $80 billion industry in seven to 10 years.”

Such predictions may well pan out, said David Lineback, director of the Joint Institute for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition in College Park, a partnership of the University of Maryland and the Food and Drug Administration.

‘‘There is a solid base for nutrigenomics, no doubt about it. The potential is there,” Lineback said, comparing the science to the potential shown by biotechnology 10 years ago. ‘‘The science will develop, but there is a lot to learn.”

Nutrigenomics will come of age in two phases, the first of which ‘‘is ready for prime time,” Evans said. ‘‘There are genes we have that are expressed in different ways. There are arthritis-associated genes. If products are developed that are part of your diet, or a supplement that can help you control expression of that gene, it would no doubt lessen the diseases.”

Current science in nutrigenomics is centered on genes known for diet-related ailments, such heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, plus genes that regulate the relationship between body salt and high blood pressure or genes related to lactose intolerance, he said.

The second phase takes the science a step further, he said.

‘‘It is feasible that somewhere down the road, you will go to the doctor and he will tell you by your profile which diseases you are susceptible to and will recommend a diet to help avoid their expression,” Evans said.

Abramson — a geneticist, lawyer and businessman — focuses on the data and mathematical models, which have inspired his vision for JeneJuice and future nutrigenomic foods.

‘‘There are now massive data from many sources — NIH, drug companies, universities,” Abramson said. ‘‘They are describing the interactive nexus of the environment and the genome with a great deal of specificity, how different chemicals, natural and unnatural, affect genes.”

Abramson teaches a course in the economics of biotechnology at the Rockville campus of John Hopkins University. He previously was counsel for Fit America, a weight-loss company in south Florida.

Many of his graduate students work in genomics laboratories of NIH and suburban Maryland biotechnology companies such as Human Genome Sciences, Celera Genomics and GeneLogic, he said.

It was a student who challenged him to apply his scientific expertise in the business world.

One day in 1998, ‘‘I told my class that genomics spells the death knell for pharma because a gene means everything,” he said. He told his students that ‘‘if you build a drug around a gene, you don’t need 5,000 salespeople.”

‘‘One of my students then said, ‘If you are so goddamn smart, why don’t you do something useful with genomics?’ ... so that was the start of AlphaGenics.”

Today AlphaGenics has three staffers, including Abramson. AlphaGenics is privately funded, he said, but there is ‘‘growing interest lately from angel corporate investors.”

This report originally appeared in The Business Gazette.

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