We begin this week’s wellness spotlight with an excerpt from a book by the director of the NIH Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD. The Human Genome Project, which Dr. Collins headed up, is considered to be biology’s equivalent to the Apollo moon landing or splitting the atom. The project took 15 years and while many questions were answered, many more questions surfaced, and it became clear that genes are not always our destiny. With the emerging knowledge that our environment and food can alter gene expression, it is only fitting that Dr. Collins was just announced by the NIH to be the head of a new 10-year project in precision nutrition. See the announcement after the excerpt below:
“ON A WARM SUMMER DAY just six months into the new millennium, humankind crossed a bridge into a momentous new era. An announcement beamed around the world, highlighted in virtually all major newspapers, trumpeted that the first draft of the human genome, our own instruction book, had been assembled.
The human genome consists of all the DNA of our species, the hereditary code of life. This newly revealed text was 3 billion letters long, and written in a strange and cryptographic four-letter code. Such is the amazing complexity of the information carried within each cell of the human body, that a live reading of that code at a rate of one letter per second would take thirty-one years, even if reading continued day and night. Printing these letters out in regular font size on normal bond paper and binding them all together would result in a tower the height of the Washington Monument. For the first time on that summer morning this amazing script, carrying within it all of the instructions for building a human being, was available to the world.
As the leader of the international Human Genome Project, which had labored mightily over more than a decade to reveal this DNA sequence, I (Francis Collins) stood beside President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House, along with Craig Venter, the leader of a competing private sector enterprise. Prime Minister Tony Blair was connected to the event by satellite, and celebrations were occurring simultaneously in many parts of the world. Clinton’s speech began by comparing this human sequence map to the map that Meriwether Lewis had unfolded in front of President Thomas Jefferson in that very room nearly two hundred years earlier. Clinton said, “Without a doubt, this is the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind.” But the part of his speech that most attracted public attention jumped from the scientific perspective to the spiritual. “Today,” he said, “we are learning the language in which God created life. We are gaining ever more awe for the complexity, the beauty, and the wonder of God’s most divine and sacred gift.”
The Language of God
Francis S. Collins
NEW NIH RESEARCH GOALS FOCUS ON “PRECISION NUTRITION”
The NIH has recently announced the launch of a new strategic plan to advance nutrition research for the next 10 years.
The objective, according to the NIH, is for physicians to be able to recommend what, when, why and how each individual should eat to optimize their health — an approach known as “precision nutrition.”
NIH Director Francis S. Collins, MD, PhD, discussed the new strategic plan — released on May 27 — during the opening session of Nutrition 2020.
“The nutrition research field, I believe, is poised to make a leap forward by taking advantage of a lot of insights and technologies and rethinking the approach to answering those age-old questions about how food influences our health and what we can do about it,” Collins said.
The new strategic plan was developed by the NIH’s Nutrition Research Task Force. The NIH has dedicated more than $1.9 billion in the fiscal year 2019 to support the plan.
There are four major goals that the task force aims to accomplish by 2030. The first goal is to answer the question: “What do we eat and how does it affect us?”
“That’s the basic science part of what this plan puts forward,” Collins said. “This includes getting more information about the microbiome and the role that it plays in diet, new technologies for capturing dietary intake — because we can do a lot better than the questionnaires that we’ve had to depend on — and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning on large datasets to make inferences on diet and health.”
The second goal is to answer: “What and when should we eat?” This will involve gaining a better understanding of interventions such as circadian rhythm and the potential role of fasting, which Collins said, “is a big and important issue right now.”
The third goal is to answer: “How does what we eat promote health across our lifespan?”
“A lot of the focus here is on what happens in those early years because we do know that developmental origins of health and disease is a big deal, but we still don’t have nearly enough information to understand that connection,” Collins said.
The fourth goal is to answer: “How can we improve the use of food as medicine?”
“We have not fully figured out how to make that a reality,” Collins said. “The big question is about probiotics. How can we figure out how to take a very big field, at least in terms of what we see at the grocery store shelves, and provide a more rigorous scientific basis behind this in terms of how it can help people both treating illnesses and avoiding them in the first place?”
The strategic plan also outlines five cross-cutting areas that are relevant to each goal. These areas focus on minority health and disparities; women’s health; rigor and reproducibility; data science and artificial intelligence; and training the next generation of the nutrition scientific workforce, according to the NIH. Collins said that he hopes the new plan will attract people with diverse backgrounds and disciplines into the workforce.
“We want to invigorate nutrition research with those kinds of interdisciplinary moments where the sparks fly between people who have different ideas and they figure out how you can take an engineering perspective, a biological perspective and a microbiological perspective and turn that into a really interesting project,” he said. “That’s often where the big advances happen, and I hope this workforce will allow that.”