Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
January 13, 2004
Prof exploring ethics of new science of nutrition and genes
What's in your genes may one day determine what's on your plate, as the emerging field of nutritional genomics — the science of customizing diets to fit individual genetic profiles – takes flight. But a University of Guelph philosophy professor warns that a cautious approach and a new ethical framework are needed to explore the larger moral issues involved.
"There's huge potential for the field of nutritional genomics to grow very rapidly," said David Castle, who is part of a major initiative to develop ethics guidelines for this emerging field. “But first we want to understand what policy-makers, the scientific community and the general public see as the big issues.”
Researchers in nutritional genomics are studying how nutrients interact with genes and influence human health and disease so they can design special diets for consumers based on their DNA. Scientists are already predicting that nutrigenomics could bring about radical changes in how food is grown, processed and consumed.
Castle and his colleagues in the Ethics Guidelines for Nutritional Genomics Project organized an international advisory panel and prepared a consultation document that highlights some of the ethical problems of the controversial new science. The report, “Nutrition and Genes: Science, Society and the Supermarket,” is posted on the group’s web site. The researchers have invited government officials, industry professionals, patients and patient groups, researchers and individuals to respond with their views and concerns.
The document focuses on such areas as how services should be administered and how the industry should be regulated. But other important issues may also emerge, Castle said. “We want to know whether or not we've identified the major issues that people are concerned about. What we've come up with in this document is by no means an exhaustive list."
Castle and his colleagues will incorporate the submitted opinions and perspectives into their final report, which will be released in the fall of 2004. He added that further investigation of nutritional genomics ethics could help establish better scientific guidelines for genetic tests, regulate the cost, establish new food labelling guidelines as they relate to nutritional genomics, and propose new laws for privacy of genetic information.
The Ethics Guidelines for Nutritional Genomics Project also aims to re-create the role of the bioethics discipline, Castle said. So far, the study of the ethical and moral implications of new biological discoveries and advances is typically applied only after these biotechnologies are being used on a large scale. Posing bioethical questions to a science in its infancy — such as nutritional genomics — is an important step in giving the field greater credibility and a more active role in determining how new technologies can be properly offered to the public, he said.
The project is an initiative of the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics and the University of Guelph's Department of Philosophy, and is sponsored by Genome Canada. The report is available online.
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