The cost of diet-related chronic disease may soon exceed $1 trillion per year in the United States. This is driving the critical need for researchers and clinicians to better understand the dose-response relationships among nutrients and chronic disease, and to establish scientifically-grounded guidance for optimal dietary intakes.
To help address these needs, Cornell University will host The First Annual Precision Nutrition Symposium, October 14-15, as a catalyst for an annual research symposium and multidisciplinary working group forum for the Cornell community to focus on the customization of nutrition.
“What we are trying to get at is the idea that we are all not the same. Our DNA, microbiome, and even environment impact our nutrient requirements. We have to identify nutrient needs for individual groups and subpopulations to improve overall human health,” said Anna Thalacker-Mercer, assistant professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and symposium lead organizer. “Currently we treat populations as if we are all the same, not taking into account the different factors including genetic differences, polypharma, cultural needs, dietary needs, even urban vs. rural challenges that are faced.”
In many cases, Thalacker-Mercer said, informed nutritional status and guidance is often lacking; when evidence is available, nutrients are often prescribed at doses that are recommended for large and general populations and not smaller individual groups. However, in this era of precision medicine, the pursuit of customized nutrition for prevention and treatment of disease and maintenance of optimal health is critical.
Precision nutrition, she said, refers to the tailoring of nutrition, with nutritional decisions, practices, or medications being designed for individuals or subpopulations that consider variability in diet, lifestyle, environment and genes by accurately determine a group’s nutritional status.
“There are several things that we have to think about when we’re talking about nutrient and metabolic needs for communities around the world,” Thalacker-Mercer said. “We recognize that the ability to address these knowledge gaps goes beyond one academic unit and requires the expertise across many disciplines.”
The symposium will bring together investigators from across the Cornell campuses, including the Ithaca campus, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Cornell Tech, to advance the fundamental understanding of nutrition’s connection to biological networking and changes with age and interaction with nutrients.
Dr. James C. Lo, assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell and a physician-scientist studying metabolic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases who is co-organizing the symposium, said researchers know from decades of research and observation that nutrition plays a large role in health and disease. However, it is challenging for physicians to recommend specific nutritional guidelines to patients because of person-to-person variability.
“It is abundantly clear by now that there is a high degree of heterogeneity in the presentation of disease and the treatment of it among individuals, even in specific diseases,” he said. “For patients with heart attacks, we treat the majority of them with the same 5-6 classes of medications and ask them to adopt a healthy cardiovascular lifestyle. While this is certainly an advance over the last 3-4 decades, the future is in understanding the drivers of disease in individual patients and developing personalized therapies and nutritional programs for them.”
According to symposium organizers, through academic integration across the campuses, the University is well-positioned to address the scientific and methodological transformations required to address the ever-growing need for optimal nutrition and to be at the forefront of scientific discovery and clinical intervention.
“The symposium will bridge knowledge and research across scientific niches throughout the Cornell research community with the focus on understanding and delivering optimal nutrition to combat chronic disease,” Thalacker-Mercer said, noting that synergy between the campuses is crucial to success.
“Cornell is a terrific institution and both the Ithaca and NYC campuses have a lot of complementary expertise to offer,” Lo added. “Initiatives like this one serve to strengthen and formalize many of the connections between the two campuses — and forge enhanced collaborations that can drive new advances in science and medicine.”
The primary goals of the symposium are to assist in establishing Cornell as the global leader in precision nutrition; and develop research synergies across the Cornell campuses for the development of multi-investigator research proposals in precision nutrition. Further, organizers hope to also encourage future research collaborations within the Cornell research community to identify next generation biomarkers for assessment of nutrient needs in health and disease.
“The Cornell campuses need a platform to discuss precision nutrition and develop a research network of people, from across the entirety of Cornell, who are interested in conducting precision nutrition, where the end goal is to improve health – optimal nutrition for optimal health. This symposium will provide the needed platform,” Thalacker-Mercer said.